Dr. Haider Shah

Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance (Plato).

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What if NATO fails in Afghanistan? — II Conclusion

OVER A COFFEE: What if NATO fails in Afghanistan? — II —Dr Haider Shah

The instalment of a radical militant Islamist government will be a great source of personal satisfaction for those strategists in Pakistan who are imbued with a spirit of international jihad 

In part one of this piece, I raised this question in the backdrop of the turbulent economic situation of the major NATO powers. The post-withdrawal situation in Afghanistan has been discussed at length by analysts in the popular media as well as academic annals but its impact upon Pakistan’s internal situation has received rather less attention. Even our own defence analysts remain so enchanted by geostrategic implications that the socio-political impact does not come into the spotlight.

History matters, many organisational analysts tell us. It matters a lot in the case of Afghanistan, where time seems to be frozen. “If Alexander visits Afghanistan today, he will find little difference in the plains he once trounced,” remarks the British author of a book dedicated to the British soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. The spectre of history still haunts Afghanistan and that is why no one is certain what the future will be like once NATO forces withdraw completely as per the Lisbon meeting’s announced deadline of December 2014.

There are three likely scenarios, depending on the interplay of various factors. First comes the most optimistic one, which the US and other NATO decision makers are pinning their hopes on: a stable and self-confident Afghanistan where the Afghan national security forces (ANSF) prove capable enough to deter any advance of the Taliban insurgency. This will mean that Afghanistan will no longer be a failed state but would make a belated tryst with history, burying its bloodstained past forever. This gleeful scenario would be a painful anti-climax for those strategists in our security establishment who have long been dreaming of using Afghanistan as a vassal state in order to gain greater influence in regional politics. It would however open new windows of opportunity for political governments in Pakistan. Already a need for a de-radicalisation plan has been underscored by the present government while Nawaz Sharif has recently talked about a liberal and moderate Pakistan that can live in harmony and peace with its neighbours. The challenge for Pakistan will be to realign its foreign policy and use its economic clout in forging friendlier ties with a re-born Afghanistan. The Pak-Afghan Transit Trade Agreement can become a strong lever for strengthening trilateral ties between Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. Europe, which once lost billions of lives to various nationalist and religious causes, found peace through trade. The three South Asian nations can also bury the hatchet through trade and commerce. This is possible if the future Afghan policy is shaped and guided by our traders and not solely by uniformed geo-strategists.

The second possibility is the continuation of a civil war between the Taliban and Afghan government. With the departure of foreign troops we can expect a steady surge in the activities of Taliban forces as their sympathisers in Pakistan will also step up their efforts. But the Afghan government will also not be left hung out to dry. Besides all major NATO powers, many regional players will also be keen on keeping the Taliban at bay. Iran, Turkey and neighbouring Central Asian states support the present Afghan dispensation due to shared ethnic or religious affinity. India has also invested a lot in the ongoing economic development of Afghanistan and would not like to see an abrupt change. China and Russia are also apprehensive of any radicalised regime in Afghanistan as this will have a potentially disturbing influence in the Chechnya and Xinjiang regions. The consequence of this will be a protracted war between the Taliban and pro-Afghan government forces.

The third possibility is that of a replay of the 1992 situation when the Dr Najib government melted in the face of the mujahideen’s speedy advance. This possibility arises due to the troubled economic situation of the US and other NATO powers. With the US presidential election drawing closer, the attention will focus on fixing the gaping US budget deficit. The Afghan war is a major contributor to the budget deficit and, as US voters’ support is dwindling, it is possible that Afghanistan is left on its own. Many NATO analysts have shown their distrust over the quality of the some 300,000 strong ANSF. As has been seen in the past, if the tide turns, mass desertions cannot be ruled out. The donors accuse the Karzai government of widespread corruption and nepotism. If massive funding dries up and Afghan forces do not show the right mettle, a takeover by militants can become a grim reality.

The instalment of a radical militant Islamist government will be a great source of personal satisfaction for those strategists in Pakistan who are imbued with a spirit of international jihad. They will find great consolation in the fact that they have outmanoeuvred India in Afghanistan by installing a regime that is anti-Indian. But apart from this jingoistic satisfaction, what our national gains would be is hard to imagine. If we extend support to such a regime, the international community will further sever already strained relations with us. In the late 1980s, access to the newly liberated Central Asian states became a bee in the bonnet for our strategists, and the Taliban were thought to be a means towards that end. It never materialised then and is even harder now to become a reality. With regular bloodbaths in Karachi, we do not offer ourselves as an ideal trade link to any investor. Moreover, the ethno-political ties between Central Asian states and non-Taliban forces will always work against any trade aspirations at our end.

The backslash of a Taliban government upon the socio-political life of Pakistan will however be severe. A new discourse on the invincibility of the jihad-inspired movement will spread like jungle fire. Radical elements in the media will cite the defeat of two superpowers to further radicalise our youth. The Taliban government will support the Pakistani Taliban movement with a new vigour. The law and order situation will be the obvious casualty. Sectarian warfare will erupt as sectarian groups associated with al Qaeda will feel emboldened by their faith brothers’ victory in Afghanistan. It is not difficult to see that Pakistan would end up becoming a pariah state only to climb up the ladder of failed states very quickly to share the top slot with Afghanistan. Given this reality, one can see some truth in the comment of US Vice President Joe Biden, which he made after he visited Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2008: “If Afghanistan fails, Pakistan could follow, because extremists will set their sights on the bigger prize to the east.”


The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at hashah9@yahoo.com

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What if NATO fails in Afghanistan? — I Daily Times, 20 August

OVER A COFFEE: What if NATO fails in Afghanistan? — I —Dr Haider Shah

The US has a much bigger home-grown enemy to deal with: the menacingly out of control national debt. It never rains but it pours. The unemployment rate is also alarmingly very high and, unlike previous recoveries when the unemployment rate would recede, this time it continues to remain high 

A decade ago, the US-led NATO forces entered Afghanistan to flush out the Taliban government and hence dismantle the headquarters of a deadly international terrorist movement. Amid fluctuating fortunes, President Obama saw both high and low points in the bloodstained melodrama of Afghanistan in the recent past. On May 2 this year, a beaming President Obama disclosed to the whole world that two special teams of SEAL commandos had killed Osama bin Laden in a daredevil secret operation. Just three months later, a grim looking Obama was condoling the deaths of 30 SEAL commandos after their Chinook chopper was shot down by Taliban insurgents. Despite the symbolic importance of this incident, the salvo that gives rise to my hypothetical question, however, comes not from the militants but from the guns of credit rating agencies and stumbling stock markets. Adding insult to injury, the Chinook chopper incident came hard on the heels of the first ever downgrading of the US debt from AAA to AA+ with negative outlook by Standard & Poor’s (S&P) credit rating agency.

“War is much too serious a matter to be entrusted to the military,” said Georges Clemenceau, a French statesman. Wars need long term spending commitment and a long war always leaves the warring nation exhausted no matter who wins the war. It was this realisation that made Obama reluctant to jump into the Afghan war without a clear strategic goal in sight. The Af-Pak strategy was therefore based on a brief engagement as Obama did not want to enter into a troubled marriage with Afghanistan with no exit option. In 2009, the 66-page fact finding McChrystal report on Afghanistan painted a very dismal picture of NATO forces’ gains in Afghanistan against a determined and well entrenched foe. The general had concluded with cautious optimism that, “While the situation is serious, success is still achievable.” Now on the eve of announced drawdown of US troops leading to complete withdrawal of NATO forces and handing over security to Afghan security forces, it is not certain whether success can still be guaranteed.

The US has a much bigger home-grown enemy to deal with: the menacingly out of control national debt. It never rains but it pours. The unemployment rate is also alarmingly very high and, unlike previous recoveries when the unemployment rate would recede, this time it continues to remain high. At the current 9.2 percent, it is one of the highest among developed economies and, not surprisingly, the growth rate is sluggish. Social welfare spending has risen enormously but the generous tax cuts by the Bush era resulted in a slide in tax revenue. To worsen the situation, Bush initiated two major wars that sucked huge amounts of US finances. All these factors combined to create a huge gap between the US’s revenues and spending, which, at the moment, stands at a staggering $ 14.34 trillion, which is the highest public debt since World War II. Given this scenario, rebuilding Afghanistan becomes a very low priority concern for the inward looking superpower. The other major NATO partners like the UK, France and Germany are also in the midst of economic hurricane themselves. Growth in the UK’s economy is negligible and managing the debt problem is the driving public policy goal of the coalition government. The Eurozone has been jolted by the near default economies of Greece and Portugal while other European Union (EU) members are also on red alert giving rise to serious concerns about the sustainability of euro currency all together. Given the severe financial distress that all major NATO countries are experiencing, it is not impossible that they rush through the exit strategy and leave Afghanistan at the mercy of local players. Put less diplomatically, our major question should be: what will happen if NATO troops fail in Afghanistan and just go away? Have we considered the consequences of that scenario upon Pakistan?

One main effect will be that visitors from Pakistan or Afghanistan will find it harder to enter the US and other NATO countries. The Obama administration had articulated the primary goal of military engagement in Afghanistan as ensuring homeland security from the operatives of the al Qaeda network located in the Af-Pak region. Once it withdraws completely without fulfilling the task, it will naturally seal its borders for visitors from the region ruled by al Qaeda. The worst hit will be students who wish to go to educational institutions in developed countries as they will find it harder to overcome the suspicion hurdle of the visa regimes of NATO countries. Already, the situation is not very cordial. It will only become worse.

At the national level, our own military schemers, who have long been waiting for such a golden moment, will be thrilled and the emboldened insurgents will receive more support from their benefactors and handlers. In 1989, Dr Najib’s government was able to withstand the onslaught of Afghan mujahideen on Jalalabad. However, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Najib regime also crumbled as vital military and financial support dried up. It is not hard to imagine that the same thing could happen to the Karzai government as, without military and financial support, long-term engagement with a deep rooted and determined insurgency will prove difficult for a cash starved Afghan government.

What happened when the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government signed a peace treaty with insurgents in the Malakand division can be extrapolated to the possible future after insurgents occupy Kabul by force. FATA, Malakand and other adjoining areas in KP will become their hotbeds and a severe law and order problem will follow. Thanks to the late Saleem Shahzad’s work, we all know that there are al Qaeda cells in the security institutions. With an Islamic emirate in Afghanistan and our tribal belt established, we would see greater cooperation between them and insurgents as both would be imbued with a renewed religious zeal and a feeling of invincibility.

(To be continued)

The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at hashah9@yahoo.com

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Arab Spring in London? Daily Times 13 August

OVER A COFFEE: Arab Spring in London? —Dr Haider Shah

While our leftist utopians found some revolutionary fantasies in the flames of burning police cars and smashed glass panes of superstores, sympathisers of Islamist radicalism discovered their own jubilation in the rioting incidents

It is not the first time that the majestic London has seen its buildings on fire. In 1666, the Great Fire of London gutted almost 14,000 buildings in and around the city of London in just four days. Similarly, in the Second World War, London saw its buildings ablaze due to the Nazi aerial attacks. More recently on July 7, 2005, the carefree calm of London was shaken up by suicide bombers leaving many tube stations and a bus in flames. On each occasion the resilient spirit of Londoners healed the damage in no time. But what happened during the last few days of August was unprecedented in many ways. The flames were neither caused by a natural calamity nor by a determined enemy. This time Great Britain was rocked by hooded gangs of lads with no political ideology. Anger, criminality and opportunism, working in tandem, produced a rioting spree that made London and a few other British cities look like Mogadishu to the baffled world.

An editorial published in The Washington Post draws parallels between the Arab Spring and London rioting. In both cases angry demonstrations were sparked by the death of a commoner due to alleged highhandedness of the authorities. In both cases it was the social networking tools like Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry Messenger that escalated rumour mongering and provided a loose but effective organising mechanism to the looters. But there are noticeable differences as well. Those who had gathered in Cairo or Tunis had a clear political will and did not indulge in private property looting. On the contrary, the lads in Britain were energised by consumerist greed and found a convenient opportunity to smash the glass windows of retail outlets and decamp with fancied valuables. In the case of the Arab unrest, the strong tactics of the law enforcement agencies resulted in the deaths of many protesters, thus further aggravating the volatile situation while in Britain the police has been rather criticised for being too pacifist in dealing with the miscreants.

Many Left-leaning analysts are keen on declaring the criminal activity a social uprising, which has challenged capitalism. In these riots a few daydreamers even see the halo of a working class revolution as the harbinger of the end of bourgeois democracy. But they conveniently ignore the fact that these gangsters, notorious for hating any work, were pillaging shops of hardworking small scale businessmen. Some intellectuals started applying various sociological frameworks to find excuses for the conduct of the ruffians. Yes, a majority of these youth gang members belong to low income groups but surviving on the state welfare system, they have no idea what poverty is. The UK government will do them great service if they are sent to a Sub-Saharan country or a slum in South Asia so that they have a first-hand learning experience about real poverty and thus stop pitying themselves as victims for not being able to buy the latest model of a mobile phone or Nike joggers.

Shoplifting and occasional vandalism of public property, mostly by school dropouts, have long been recognised as some of the major social problems in the UK. In 1998, the Labour government introduced the Crime and Disorder Act to deal with the nuisance caused by local youth gangs. The law empowered magisterial courts to issue Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) to deal with young delinquents involved in minor incidents. From its inception the law was criticised by many human rights campaigners. The sheer scale and tenacity of rioting in the last few days suggest that ASBOs kind of soft legislation has not proved effective in rooting out a deeper problem. However, when a building is on fire the first concern is always how to contain and extinguish the fire. Only once the dust settles can one engage in deeper soul-searching to find the cause of the fire and its prevention in future. Analysts in the UK are therefore now discussing a holistic strategy that addresses both the containment and cure of the gang culture.

While our leftist utopians found some revolutionary fantasies in the flames of burning police cars and smashed glass panes of superstores, sympathisers of Islamist radicalism discovered their own jubilation in the rioting incidents. They argue that since non-Muslims are also committing violent acts so we are unfairly scandalised by the western media. This kind of reasoning is quite unfortunate. As we find justifications for the anger of terrorists in Pakistan and all over the world, some apologists in the British media also tried to glamourise the consumerist greed of the school dropouts but this has failed to attract any wide-scale approval. We need to be clear on the difference between rioting by youth gangs and the al Qaeda brand of terrorism. The youth gangs do not have a common ideology or an international agenda. Their activity is a localised problem that can be dealt with by stronger anti-riot policing and socio-economic action. As seen in the case of Northern Ireland, when the British police is legally empowered it can deal with any kind of organised terrorism. Ideology-based violent gangs with international support and networking are, however, more difficult to monitor or eradicate and hence pose a much bigger threat.

There is little doubt that the London brand received a serious blow because of scenes of rioting shown all over the world. A friendly football match between Holland and England scheduled for August 10 was called off by the Football Association following a third night of riots. A presenter of radio channel London Biggest Conversation (LBC) commented that he had a hard time convincing the worried American listeners that London was not falling apart. A lot of image repair work has to be done quickly and effectively by the Cameron government as the London Olympics are hardly a year away. While the government is dealing with the demon of stagnant growth and fiscal gap management, the trouble caused by happy-go-lucky lads is the last thing it wants to cause distraction in the midst of challenging international economic conditions.

The writer teaches in the UK and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at hashah9@yahoo.com


Muckrakery and perception management

OVER A COFFEE: Muckrakery and perception management —Dr Haider Shah

A good example of perception management can be found in the living legend of Nelson Mandela. Even though he is the symbol of the South African struggle against apartheid and of the new nation, he stepped down from the presidency to help in institution building instead of cult following

Ever since the media in Pakistan started showing its newly developed teeth, we have seen a steady rise in the list of complainants. Ironically, the benefactor, General Musharraf, was the first victim of his own creation — the electronic media. Then came the turn of the Zardari-led government, which has not been very successful in overcoming credibility problems despite being a legitimate government. After a few recent embarrassing episodes, the security establishment has also joined the queue of whiners charging the media of a smear campaign against national institutions on the behest of ‘anti-state’ elements.

Disgruntled victims of media coverage often react by charging the media of yellow journalism. But when investigative and bold journalism results in the unmasking of a corruption-ridden institution or brings a serious issue to the attention of the national conscience, the correct label is ‘muckrakery’ — a name given to the early 20th century movement in the US, which helped in making corruption and injustice major public policy issues. Writing in popular magazines and newspapers, many muckraker journalists unearthed institutionalised corrupt systems with the help of sensational reporting. The term ‘muckraker’ was popularised by President Roosevelt who referred to these determined reformist journalists by citing a character from Pilgrim’s Progress who had rejected a crown for his muckrake to focus on filth. Unlike both yellow and objective journalists, the muckrakers were imbued with the spirit of reformation and political action and used journalism to make corruption and injustice mainstream issues of public discourse. Their relentless work helped a lot in cleaning the US’s public life from rampant corruption in both public and private sector organisations

The media is not a monolithic organisation. It has people representing various viewpoints, political agendas and vested interests. While Pakistani muckrakers are doing excellent work on the social reform campaign side, there are many others who have used their writings and electronic media coverage to radicalise our general population. They keep pouring oil over the raging flames of jihadi extremism. The government has to therefore listen to two kinds of voices: one coming from genuine muckrakers, and the second from noisy jihadi journalists or analysts. While the latter can be ignored, as they are practically unhappy with all governments, it is the disapproval of the former that should be taken seriously by any popularly elected government. This takes us to the importance of perception management for good governance.

Accountability is sometimes defined as managing expectations well. In public life, perceptions are often more powerful than reality. No political party can therefore remain oblivious to popular perceptions. They take steps to dispel a negative perception or enhance a positive one. For instance, when Sonia Gandhi was requested to become the Congress leader after the party needed an electoral boost in 1997-98, the BJP led anti-Congress forces initiated a campaign targeting her Italian origins. As a good public perceptions management move, Sonia did not assume the office of prime minister or president even though her party won the election under her leadership, and instead chose Manmohan Singh as the prime minister. In 2006, Mrs Jaya Bachchan was disqualified from parliament on account of holding an office of profit. Her supporters accused Sonia of double standards as it was claimed that she also held an office of profit because she was the president of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation. Sonia first tried to defend her position but when she felt that public perception was not favourable, she resigned as an MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly) and after relinquishing her chairpersonship of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, she got herself re-elected in the by-election to manage the negative perception. In the UK, in 2004, the then British Home Secretary, David Blunkett, resigned, stating that questions about his honesty were damaging the government after reports emerged that he had asked for expeditious disposal of a nanny’s visa application. Another good example of perception management can be found in the living legend of Nelson Mandela. Even though he is the symbol of the South African struggle against apartheid and of the new nation, he stepped down from the presidency to help in institution building instead of cult following.

In Pakistan, we see that, of late, many organisations have become sensitive to public perceptions and approval ratings. For instance, recently, the Supreme Court (SC) recommended an extension of Justice Ramday’s appointment. Despite Justice Ramday’s good reputation, the move was widely criticised and the SC judges were gracious enough not to press upon a move that carried a negative perception. Similarly, when the Punjab Assembly passed a resolution against the media in the wake of the fake degrees coverage, universal condemnation followed. As a part of perception management, the PML-N leadership was sensible enough to retract the step in humility. Unfortunately, the same kind of sensitivity to public perceptions is conspicuously missing on the part of the PPP-led government. It is no secret that Mr Zardari carries a negative perception of corruption since the Benazir days, not only in the national but also in the international media. As a part of perception management, like Sonia Gandhi, he could have appointed a PPP leader with a cleaner image like Manmohan Singh as the prime minister and president and himself remained the party leader. This would have dispelled the perception that he was obsessed with clinging to power to safeguard his dubious financial dealings. Appointments of individuals with questionable integrity to key positions also have not helped in dispelling the negative perception associated with his personality. If today muckrakers are relentlessly after him, it is proof of the poor perceptions management policy of the government.

In this glittering age of social networking and a fiercely independent electronic media, a cunningly contrived Machiavellian governance model alone is not helpful. All institutions have to be sensitive to public perceptions and should address negative perceptions promptly and effectively. Action speaks louder than words. The perceptions management policy should therefore carry both right words and appropriate actions.

The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at hashah9@yahoo.com