Dr. Haider Shah

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

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When we all become Taliban , Daily Times, 25/5/13

OVER A COFFEE : When we all become Taliban — Dr Haider Shah

Merely holding negotiations with the Taliban in the absence of clear policy targets is a futile exercise 

When we use the word Talib or its plural Taliban, we often imagine a stereotype However, as Faiz Ahmed Faiz says, “Aashiq to kisi ka naam nahi, kuch ishq kisi ki zaat nahi” (Lover is no one’s name, Love is no one’s caste), Talib is also a state of mind that can afflict any member of any social class and background. The defining characteristic of the Taliban is their lack of readiness to listen to the viewpoint of others and their propensity to enforce their opinions by force on others.

This state of mind is not monopolised by militant extremists though. For instance a few days ago, I watched a TV debate between Hamid Khan of Pakistan Tehreek-e- Insaaf (PTI) and Saad Rafique of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) regarding allegations of rigging in the constituency NA-125. The Constitution of Pakistan and the Representation of the People Act, 1976 provide the legal framework for holding of elections and procedural details. If Mr Khan had declared his outright rejection of the Constitution of Pakistan and laws made under it, then he was fully entitled to force his personal opinion by staging a ‘dharna’ (sit-in protest) and using various pressure tactics. Similarly, Dr Shireen Mazari, who like Zaid Hamid carries a bag full of conspiracy theories, appeared in one programme where she jubilantly presented a video clip alleging that in the video a ranger personnel was hindering a woman from casting her vote. Later it transpired that the official was wearing Sindh ranger uniform and hence could not be related to the Lahore elections. In any civilised country a political figure making such a fake claim on national TV would either resign or get fired. But not in Pakistan, where rumour mongers and conspiracy theorists have a licence to generate garbage round the clock with impunity. Then we have half a dozen TV anchors who believe that all judicial, legislative and executive powers are fused in their wise lordships. These self-appointed custodians of national conscience and honour constantly hand out judgements that are the exclusive domain of institutions created by the constitution.

As the dust settles, the PML-N is all set to form a strong federal government with no reliance on any other political party. The challenges of recovering a battered economy and ending load shedding while the kitty is empty are daunting. The first 100-day plan of the PML-N identifies the same priorities that I enlisted as four open wounds in my last piece. While the government seems earnestly determined to deal with the economic problems on a war footing, there are two spoilers waiting in the wings. One, the smaller of the two, the nemesis of Nawaz Sharif, is now under house arrest. Second, the more formidable one is the demon of militant extremism. Arguably, Pervez Musharraf can be treated as a spent cartridge and hence in a reversal of fortunes might be exiled with the help of friendly countries. Restoring peace and ending terrorism is a much more challenging job. Both before and after the elections Mr Sharif has been heard supporting negotiations with the Taliban. The chief minister-nominee of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pervez Khattak of the PTI, has termed Taliban sons of the soil. Both federal and provincial governments seem to be approaching Maulana Samiul Haq for brokering peace with the Taliban. As both governments have won elections on this mandate they have every moral and legal right to experiment with negotiations with the Taliban. But neither a military operation nor negotiations can be fruitful unless they are part of a well thought out national policy on terrorism. I had once pleaded for a comprehensive solution where both negotiations and military operations can be considered as possible options. But such a solution will only be effective if it is also a part of a paradigm shift. If we wish to become a normal welfare state that wants to maximise the happiness of its citizens, we need to have friendly relations with our neighbouring countries. Once this principle is embraced by all, a comprehensive solution of extremism can be further explored. As I stated in an earlier piece, the militancy that we experience today is the fallout of our social embrace of extremist ideas, which necessitates implementation of a strategic level de-radicalisation plan to root out extremist tendencies from our social life.

Merely holding negotiations with the Taliban in the absence of clear policy targets is a futile exercise. Acting as the team leader, the federal government should engage all provincial governments, heads of military, police and intelligence agencies and chalk out a national policy with clear terms and conditions of negotiations. Yes, negotiations can be held with the Taliban but only after a careful scenario-planning has been done. If the Taliban do not accept the Pakistani law and its sovereignty, will the government still not consider the Taliban as an existential threat? Surrendering to the Taliban should not be confused with establishing peace through negotiations. The success of genuine negotiations will depend on three conditions. First, the perpetrators of those crimes for which the Taliban claimed responsibility should be handed over to police for prosecution under the law of the land. Second, the leaders of the outfits should announce their pledge of decommissioning as the logical result of a peace accord. Third, they should announce their readiness to take an oath of loyalty to the constitution of Pakistan. If the negotiations do not bear fruit then an anti-terrorism operation should be launched with the backing of the whole nation. Without these three conditions, holding talks with the Taliban will be counterproductive. Like a lull before the storm, we may see temporary peace, only to see the insurgency returning with a bang.

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

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Healing the open wounds, Daily Times, 17/5/13

OVER A COFFEE : Healing the open wounds — Dr Haider Shah

What is now important is to shift our attention to the burning issues of Pakistan and urge the new government to nurse the deep wounds of the state 

The tastefully dressed ladies of the ‘dharna’ camp in many posh localities are perhaps the only women of the world who are complaining that Tsunmai missed their cities and instead hit the tribal society of a neighbouring province. Allegations and counter allegations of rigging are even common among Pakistani candidates participating in the British elections from various parties in Pakistani community dominated areas. What is now more important is to shift our attention to the burning issues of Pakistan and urge the new government to nurse the deep wounds of the state. We should offer unconditional support where the government takes difficult decisions. We should criticise it forcefully when we find the government dragging its feet over urgent issues. 

More than a decade ago an elected Prime Minister was unceremoniously removed from his office by a bigoted general. The same commando later removed Chief Justice and put clamps on media. Frustrating the dictator, lawyers and general public achieved restoration of both judiciary and media. Today Nawaz Sharif, who was once handcuffed and exiled, is back in his office while the dictator is holed up in his farm house. At symbolic level this is a great boost for the democratic system in our country. The keenly contested elections also proved that Pakistani people did not pay any heed to the threats hurled by Taliban. So we saw double display of our faith in constitution based system. 

No doubt challenges before the government are many and enormous. Yes we need to spend more on education and health system needs massive improvement. But when blood is oozing from an open wound we have to attend that first before we design a gym programme for healthy living. I believe there are four such wounds that need attention of the new government as a matter of emergency. Energy is defined as the capacity to do things. The energy problem has not only forced our 180 million people into the life of Stone Age but is also making our industry bleed profusely. I would be surprised if this problem does not top the list of the 100 days plan being prepared under the guidance of veteran strategist Sartaj Aziz. Second wound is Baluchistan where the three headed monster of nationalist rebels, sectarian hate mongers and Taliban is devouring peace and prosperity of the province. Nawaz Sharif has a historic opportunity to do healing of the wound that is fast becoming cancerous. By accommodating both Baloch and Pashtun leaders, irrespective of the seats won, in the national power structure, there is a good opportunity that Baluchistan stages a comeback in the federation. Development in the province can only takes place if peace is firmly established first. The friendly relations enjoyed by Nawaz Sharif with various leaders of Baluchistan now need to be put to maximum use. The third wound is of fragile state of economy which needs an immediate injection of about 8 billion dollars. The new managers of public purse will have to enter into negotiations with IMF to secure at least $5 million loan so that Pakistan is able to repay the outstanding debt on an earlier $11 billion package. As the previous government had missed performance targets agreed with the IMF, the new government will have to face tough conditions. The economic managers will have to seek help from other sources as well. The depleted foreign exchange reserves are barely sufficient for five weeks. Friendly relations with the U.S will therefore be an important policy objective for the new government. 

The fourth open wound is of FATA where the militant extremists are entrenched and from where they have been challenging sovereignty of the state. In the past we have seen strategic confusion over the issue of extremism. Nawaz Sharif had been consistently heard in the past that there was a need for a national policy over this issue. At a pragmatic level there can be no denying the fact that political leadership, media and our military need to be on the same page if any anti-terrorism policy is to succeed. The lead role however must remain with the Prime Minister over this intricate issue. It is not just about facilitating safe and hassle free withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan but also about the home grown extremist outfits which threaten our civil liberties and scare off any foreign investment. The terrorism issue therefore sits at the very heart of economic revival. In a recent interview Nawaz Sharif stated that the negotiations offer of Taliban should be taken seriously. No doubt any gesture of peaceful negotiations should be reciprocated positively. When I compare Taliban with some other militant groups of recent past I struggle to understand the nature of representativeness of these militants though. For instance, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was a guerrilla movement launched by revolutionary Sinn Fein member Michael Collins to champion the cause of Irish Catholics. Similarly Awami League of Sheikh Mujib was clearly a representative of Bengali population and the Baloch leaders can be linked with the disgruntled Baloch sections of Baluchistan. Whom do Taliban represent? What if negotiations fail? Have we planned for that scenario as well? Will the territories under Taliban control be ceded to them to buy peace or will force be used to reclaim those areas? The new government must be very clear with its options and should take the nation into confidence on this important issue. 

Danish schools and bullet trains are important projects. But if these four wounds remain unattended they might cause death through haemorrhage. Hope these will figure prominently in the first 100 days of the new government.

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

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Branding of political parties and challenges ahead , Daily Times, 11/5/13

OVER A COFFEE : Branding of political parties and challenges ahead — Dr Haider Shah

Whether we are in the Brave New World of Naya Pakistan on May 12, or another party forms the government, the task of change will be a challenging one 

Perhaps by tomorrow we will find out which political party’s marketing team was most successful in selling its products to the segmented market of voters, and in return occupy seats of power in the federal and provincial governments.

Just as business organisations create and promote brand awareness, and thereby cultivate relations of loyalty with their customers, political parties also carry a brand with the help of which they attract various segments of society to their products. For instance, in the case of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), its strength lies in its Bhutto brand. In the last five years the brand appears to have suffered as no Bhutto led it from the front while President Asif Zardari has failed to emerge as a charismatic leader. It kept dragging its feet on rationalising discriminatory legislation in all areas of basic human rights. Its slapping a ban on YouTube was an attempt to get a piety certificate from the media Mujahideen. Consequently, the PPP’s liberalism as an integral part of its brand image has also suffered enormously. To the question how much the strategy of relying on local influentials will compensate for the damage to the brand, only the election results will provide a convincing answer.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) brand projects the mainstream culture where religion is an integral part but not the only feature of cultural life. Benefitting from electables, the Nawaz League has popularised itself as a development-friendly party. Despite the addition of some charisma because of Maryam Nawaz and Marvi Memon, the party still has to do more homework to make itself appealing to the youth of Pakistan.

Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam are examples of parties that have branded themselves as religious parties. The Awami National Party (ANP) and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) take pride in their liberal brand. The credit for working relentlessly to create and popularise a brand image, however, must go to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Many quote Imran Khan’s charisma as the defining feature of the party. But the question is why this charisma failed to work when the cricketing hero was at the height of his popularity. What is different this time is that a very concerted campaign of vilification of politicians in general was launched by various stakeholders ranging from impatient anchors in electronic media to the schemers that work behind the smokescreen. In a successful promotional campaign a business first creates a need for the product through aggressive marketing. The need for a messiah was created first by holding the current political parties and their leaders responsible for all the mess that was generated during more than three decades of military rulers. The PTI brand, therefore, hinges on Khan as a redeemer of the nation. The strength of the brand is its newness. Interestingly, the brand has attracted buyers of all sorts. The ultra-conservative jingoists are hopeful that he would confront the US like the Iranian president and implement shariah that he is increasingly using in his public discourse. Liberal and educated supporters are buying the products offered by the PTI in the hope that Khan is going to develop the country with progressive ideas. The interaction with a wide variety of PTI supporters on social networking sites gives me a feel of Tahrir Square where human rights liberal activists and Ikhwan supporters were together in toppling the then Egyptian government. In Pakistan, whether Ikhwan symapthisers will prevail in the re-energised party or liberal elements will hold sway, we shall soon find out if the PTI shows a good electoral performance. The left-leaning liberals tend to have two kinds of feelings towards PTI. Those who oppose it refer to the vocal support provided by the PTI’s leader to the militant extremists who pose an existential threat to the state and popular culture. On the other side of the continuum are the PTI supporters who believe that Khan has a tacit understanding with the western powers that he would facilitate the peaceful withdrawal of NATO troops and broker a solution that is acceptable to the US and her allies. They argue that he is appeasing the Taliban so that he can play the required role once in power. According to this theory, the US has turned its back on the liberal parties of Pakistan and instead is supporting the rightist parties to deliver in accordance with the strategic priorities in the region. Sounding a bit exotic, there may be some truth in the theory. How a PTI government will deal with the first drone attack during its rule will put the theory to the acid test.

Whoever heads the new government will have to deal with the following issues that I mentioned in one of my earlier articles. One, how will Pakistan repair the serious damage done to its international image because of its entanglement with militant jihadi outfits? Two, and related with the first one, how will Pakistan improve economic growth by increasing its trade with the regional and other major trading nations? Three, how will the rule of law, accountability and transparency be promoted? Four, how will institution building be promoted in place of personality cults? Five, how will the marginalised sections of society such as religious minorities, women, disabled persons, and economically deprived communities be empowered? Six, how will the demon of radicalisation and intolerance be exorcised? And seven, how will civil-military relations will be rationalised so that the civilian government is able to take full control of domestic and foreign policies?

We may love or loathe certain political personalities, but it will be wise to judge the success or failure of the new government on the basis of these seven questions. Whether we are in the Brave New World of Naya Pakistan on May 12, or another party forms the government, the task of change will be a challenging one.



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The spring of 2013, Daily Times, 4/5/13

OVER A COFFEE : The spring of 2013 — Dr Haider Shah

What is more important is to identify the challenges that Pakistan is facing and ask how the new government will address those 

With the coming of spring all old questions become alive with a new vigour, says Faiz Ahmad Faiz in his famous poem. This year many issues, old and new, are begging questions for both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Afghanistan and Pakistan have historically remained attached through the umbilical cord of the rugged tribal region. The British rulers used this region as a buffer against the expanding influence of the then Russian empire. At a time when messages from one part of the empire to another would take months, the British were overly sensitive to the likely motives of another empire. The difficult terrain of north western frontier of India served as a natural barrier between India and any other ambitious ruler of the west. At times, rulers in the Indian subcontinent tried to control the tidings in Afghanistan using their clout in the tribal areas, and on other occasions, the Afghan rulers tried to extend their influence by playing the religious and ethnicity cards against rulers in India. After 1947, Pakistan inherited the legacy of British rulers. Exhausted and wounded, today both neighbours stand at a critical crossroad of history.

According to one estimate the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are operating in areas where 75 percent of Afghanistan’s population lives. Over the past two years the NATO forces have been handing over security responsibilities to the ANSF in phases. The ability of the ANSF to withstand the spring offensive of the Taliban this year and in 2014 will determine the contours of the new Afghanistan. Helmand has been used as a pilot phase where coalition presence was significantly reduced allowing the ANSF to be exposed to the rigours of the challenging task that they will be performing singlehandedly after 2014. As security in Helmand has not been significantly destabilised one can hope that the worst case scenario imagined for Afghanistan after 2014 never happens. However, a prolonged civil war between the Taliban and Afghan government is a foregone conclusion unless the protracted talks with the Taliban leaders bear fruit soon. A Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is not in the interest of Pakistan as well because it would embolden Pakistani Taliban as they would try to pursue the same ideal in Pakistan. As some Pakistani groups are operating from the safe havens of Afghanistan, sorting out the open wound of tribal region on both sides of the border has become a shared priority for both neighbours. Pakistan is trying to improve its standing by establishing new relations with various sections of Afghan people. For instance, recently Liaquat Ali Khan Engineering University, an $18 million project, was inaugurated in the Balkh province, populated by the Tajiks who are the second-largest ethnic community of Afghanistan. As a gradual departure from the old Afghan policy Pakistan, therefore, appears to be aspiring for wider relations inside Afghanistan.

The second tenure of Hamid Karzai, the enigmatic Afghan president, is coming to an end as presidential elections will be held early next year. He will become the first Afghan leader who will be replaced peacefully by a new leader. Who will replace him and what will be the political set up in 2014? Will the Taliban be part of the power-sharing arrangement or not? How long will the US government be willing to keep the Afghan set up alive by supply of bags of money through CIA? A US commentator poignantly observes, “Afghans have to be paid to fight; to not fight; to stop fighting if they are already fighting and to not start fighting if they are passive but restless. The whole country is a giant web of extortion and counter-extortion.” Will we help Afghanistan come out of this malaise or further confound its problems?

If Afghanistan is making a new beginning with a peaceful transfer of power, the story of Pakistan is also not much different. For the first time power will be transferred to a new civilian government through constitutional means. Will the elections be held or postponed to keep a political government at bay? With only one week remaining and the clear assurance of COAS Pervez Kayani one hopes that the dark clouds over elections will go away. Besides elections, the year 2013 is a year of transition in terms of the exit of key players of the power game in Pakistan as well. President Asif Zardari’s tenure ends in September while Kayani’s extended three-year term will end in November. The last important change will be in judiciary as Mr Iftikhar Chaudhary will retire as the Chief Justice in December. If these changes take place in accordance with law and accepted norms, institutional development will receive a big boost.

Who will head the next government? Perhaps this is not the right question. What is more important is to identify the challenges that Pakistan is facing and ask how the new government will address those. Pakistan needs immediate economic aid of nine billion dollars from the IMF to cushion its economy according to the Asian Development Bank’s country director. There is little likelihood of the IMF providing the loan unless tough and unpopular economic decisions are taken by the new government. Whoever is the new premier, the ever increasing existentialist threat of extremist militants will have to be taken seriously by the new administration. What if the Taliban refuse to acknowledge the sovereignty of the Pakistani state on its soil despite sincere peace offers by the new government? 

Hope and fear are in the air. Which of the two will blossom and dominate the spring of 2014? Decisions made in this year’s spring will sow the seeds of what we will reap in future.

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