Dr. Haider Shah

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

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The Arab Spring…gone too soon? , Daily Times, 31 August, 2013

OVER A COFFEE : The Arab Spring…gone too soon? — Dr Haider Shah

Forge a tactical alliance with jihadis recruited through Saudi Arabia, bring down the enemy regime and then later on when those jihadis become a pain, send troops to clean the country of the mess they create 

After the spectacular uprisings in many Arab speaking countries in 2011 it seemed then that the mighty dynasties were collapsing under their own weight and the marginalised common man in the street had finally started calling the shots. No wonder many analysts started believing that the second decade of the 21st century would turn out to be the era of democracy for the Arab world.

Not everyone was so optimistic. In a piece on Arab Spring I had stated that demolishing an old order is an easy part while establishing a new order proves the more arduous and demanding stage of a revolution. Just as the South African leader Nelson Mandela had demonstrated, the test of success for a revolutionary change is the ability of change mangers to take everyone along. I had contended in my analysis of the Arab Spring that if the new political order guaranteed gender equality and rights of minorities in accordance with the UN charter of human rights, we would all call 2011 the year of democratic revolution in the Arab world. 

I was not alone in raising a sceptical voice though, as many analysts in international media were also raising similar concerns. In fact, within a few months the phrase “wither the Arab Spring” became commonplace in commentaries on the Arab world. For instance, on July 18, 2011, a video discussion appeared on The Economist’s website titled “Wither the Arab Spring” wherein various determinants of possible failure were identified. After the debacle in Egypt and the Syrian imbroglio one can now pronounce the sad demise of the Arab revolution. Who is to be blamed for this early death of a promising new era in the Arab world? Those who are hostile to the West will naturally lay all blame upon the villainous Western countries that conspire relentlessly against Muslim countries. Our liberal analysts will be tempted to find all faults within the Muslim community. If we take a more impassionate view we can realise that it is not a case of simple black and white as an interplay of many factors can be spotted. The first fault line in the Arab world is its inability to make a break with its history. The Shia-Sunni divide that cut through the social fabric of early Muslim history still keeps the Muslim society precariously fractured along sectarian identities. Religion based cultures find burying hatchets of the past difficult as we see that even in the 21st century residents of Ireland experience violence due to its religious past. Iran and Saudi Arabia are involved in a cold war as both aim to claim leadership of the 1.6 billion strong Muslim community of the world. Just like the US and Soviet Union of Warsaw Pact days, Iran and Saudi Arabia use proxies against each other in conflicts all over the world. In the Syrian civil war we see Iran and Saudi Arabia fighting out the sectarian war as well. This is a dimension of the crisis that may not augur well for Pakistan, given the already tense sectarian situation over here.

There are conflicting territorial ambitions of various Muslim countries that add another fault line to the landscape. Saudi Arabia had in the past been aiding Sunni movements like Muslim Brotherhood (MB) but of late became apprehensive of MB’s populist appeal and began to see it like a Frankenstein’s monster. Turkey supported Morsi government as it could see its economic interests best served by a moderate Muslim democratic government in Egypt. While the US expressed its concerns over the military takeover in Egypt, Saudi government opened its coffers to help the military regime address economic difficulties in Egypt. Both Saudi and Israeli government are happy to deal with a military government in Egypt as a democratic and popular government is more difficult to deal with and both countries feel threatened by an elected government on their borders. The third fault line of the Arab world is the divide between traditionalists and modernists. While the intelligentsia, students, minorities and urban dwellers press for human rights and liberal interpretation of doctrinal laws the traditionalists draw their support from rural and tribal sections of the Arab world. The secular forces, unfortunately, when in government, have often governed miserably and hence the popular discontent went in favour of traditionalists. In Palestine, Egypt, Turkey, and now in Pakistan as well, secular political groups lost support of a common voter because of their poor track record in governance.

The spectacle of tanks rolling over the bodies of supporters of a party that had clinched power through ballot was repugnantly obscene. The relative quiet in the case of Egypt and vociferous activism in the case of Syria exposes the hypocritical side of international players. It seems that in Syria another Afghanistan is being re-enacted. Forge a tactical alliance with jihadis recruited through Saudi Arabia, bring down the enemy regime and then later on when those jihadis become a pain, send troops to clean the country of the mess they create. One thought the Western powers must have become wiser by now. But maybe history repeats itself despite the lessons it gives out to its clever readers.

Adding a note of caution, I had concluded in my writing in 2011 that we had to remain sceptic as many masked robbers could be seen accompanying the caravan of Arab revolutionaries. It seems that the robbers have struck. The short-lived Arab Spring is no more.

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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Of Sikandar, the PM and Hamlet , Daily Times, 24 August, 2013

OVER A COFFEE : Of Sikandar, the PM and Hamlet — Dr Haider Shah

If we wish to secure our western borders against the onslaught of militant groups, we need to find a way of easing the pressure on our eastern border 

In his determination the lonely attacker, Sikandar, looked like his namesake, the legendary Alexander the Great. After winning the attention of entertainment-starved Pakistani TV viewers for a few hours he, however, discovered painfully that mere crazy idealism is not sufficient to become Alexander. 

In many ways Sikandar can be seen as an epitome of our social reality. He had demanded removal of a democratically elected government and implementation of shariah at gunpoint and used his two innocent children as hostages for pursuing his Utopian idealism. This madness has all the methods that characterise the ideology of extremist groups. Like Sikandar these groups also espouse imposition of shariah by use of force and intimidation. To his credit, Sikander did not kill anyone and spared even Zamurad Khan who was hopelessly at his mercy once the spirited Khan’s bold attempt to overpower Sikander went astray. Political parties, from left to right, media personalities and the Supreme Court have all condemned the fallen desperado who has been dubbed mentally ill and a user of drugs. On the other hand, the militant groups behead innocent hostages, deride the writ of the state day and night and boastfully take responsibility for their daredevil actions of brutality through public messages. Neither the Supreme Court ever found any of these attacks worthy of a suo motu notice nor a majority of our politicians found the courage to even name them, let alone condemn them. It is not difficult to conclude that if one is acting alone all fingers will point at him. But if many like Sikandar act in an organised way then they not only earn respect from all organs of the state but also receive passionate appeals for dialogue and negotiations. 

With Sikandar dominating the news, the Prime Minister (PM) of Pakistan made his much awaited televised speech. Three reactions can be identified with regards to the PM’s speech. For the critics of the PML-N the speech was long on words and short on substance. They point out that the PM did not specify his anti-terrorism policy and kept moving in circles. For those who are sympathetic to the new government, the speech made a very sincere diagnosis of the malaise that afflicts Pakistan. They would argue that the PM correctly emphasised the need for revising our foreign policy if we wanted to become an economic tiger. A third possible reaction can be comparing the PM to the troubled Hamlet. As I have mentioned on a few earlier instances as well, Nawaz Sharif was likened to Hamlet by Bruce Reidel, the strategist of President Barack Obama. Once again, Sharif was seen painfully suspended between his desire to disentangle Pakistan from the jihadi course and his inability to deal with the powerful status quo of the establishment. In his speech he was quite clear about the interaction of foreign policy, extremism, development, and exercise of our basic rights. He made all the right comments and his earnestness was also noticeable. But when it came to outlining of his anti-terrorism policy he was wanting in making a clear pronouncement. “To be or not to be” remained the question that summarised his whole speech. Sometime ago, I wrote about the missing E of extremism in the priorities of the PML-N’s blueprint for Pakistan’s future. The economy, education and energy issues can be tackled with good planning. But the issue of extremism not only needs clear strategic level planning but also requires determination, motivation and leadership. The PM in his speech did not give an impression that he has been able to embrace the message of the lines of Hamlet that follow the ‘to be or not to be’ line: 

“Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of 
outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles.” 

Sleeping over the problem of extremism is not a policy. During the first two months all possible forms of extremist attacks, from killing of foreign mountaineers to brutal murders of high-ranking police officers have been witnessed. The federal government now needs to come up with a clear and unequivocal policy. 

A more cautious analyst may find a special meaning by joining the dots if the announcements in the speeches of the interior minister and prime minister are read together with the announcement of the Cabinet Defence Committee (CDC). It can be contended that Chaudhry Nisar and Nawaz Sharif were paving the way for a policy announcement by the CDC, which had the stamp of the collective approval of the security establishment as well. The declaration that the government will negotiate with those groups that unconditionally lay down their weapons is a step in the right direction. But mere declarations are not enough. In order to take proper action against miscreants, the state needs to reappraise its friends and foes. We are already overstretched in terms of our military spending. If we wish to secure our western borders against the onslaught of militant groups, we need to find a way of easing the pressure on our eastern border. For that we need to forge relations with India on a new footing. Here the clear-headedness of PM Sharif is worth appreciating as he refrained from issuing any provocative statements despite heating up of the LoC situation. The new security paradigm should see India as a friend that can help us in our economic progress while radical militants pose an existential threat. Hope actions will match words when the anti-terrorism policy gets implemented.

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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Will Nawaz Sharif be checkmated again? , Daily Times, 17 August, 2013

OVER A COFFEE : Will Nawaz Sharif be checkmated again? — Dr Haider Shah

PM Sharif seems to be genuinely desirous of rewriting the paradigm for Pakistan on her 66th birthday. But the disablers in the system are quite powerful and too many 

Even before assuming office as the Prime Minister (PM) of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif began issuing sensible statements with regards to South Asia policy. The recent uproar over the alleged killing of some Indian soldiers across the Line of Control (LoC) has however thrown a spanner in the works. While our media, national leaders and parliament have all felt obliged to play the ‘tit for tat’ blame game, a bit of déjà vu can also be sensed. A dispassionate and rational appraisal may lead a few to think if a mini-Kargil is again being played with Sharif?

Whether the Indian soldiers were killed by some non-state actors/terrorists or by Pakistani soldiers, we are hopelessly unable to verify the claim and counterclaims for want of access to the actual facts. Popular sentiment is generated by perceptions, which in turn are shaped by past experiences. In 1999 we had brushed aside Indian allegations about our army’s clandestine operation in Kargil as untrue. From the then Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz to our media analysts, we saw all pooh-poohing Indian claims that Pakistani soldiers had violated the LoC. In the case of the Mumbai attacks we found our analysts ridiculing the claim that the attacks were planned and controlled by rogue elements working from Pakistani territory. Similarly, the same analysts, including a few with posh English accents, were seen stubbornly questioning that Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan. Beginning with the use of tribesmen as an irregular army from 1948, we have been lying so frequently and so unashamedly that now even when we are not a party to any terrorist mischief in any part of the world, we end up as the prime suspects. In all fairness, one shouldn’t rule out the possibility of India getting it wrong at times. For instance, the Samjhota Express explosion was the work of local Hindu extremists but Pakistan was initially slandered for that incident. However, unlike ours, the Indian investigators and media don’t feel shy in naming the groups and suspects once their involvement becomes known to them. We unfortunately seem to have perfected the art of hiding skeletons in the cupboard.

PM Sharif seems to be genuinely desirous of rewriting the paradigm for Pakistan on her 66th birthday. But the disablers in the system are quite powerful and too many. The opinion makers and those who call the shots belong to the generation that was taught the jihadi syllabus of Ziaul Haq. Indoctrination, therefore, runs deep in the power structure of the country. Just imagine how easy it is for any mischief monger to derail any peace process. All he has to do is to wink and an incident happens across the border. The hawks in Indian society seize upon the incident and Indian media also joins the fray. Our point scoring jingoists also open their salvos and media gears into action as well to establish its patriotic credentials. Governments in both India and Pakistan are put on the defensive and the peace process gets torpedoed by one or a small group of adventurists.

This structural weakness in Pak-India relations is known to the terrorists’ ideologues. When Pakistani forces launched military operations against al Qaeda affiliated groups in FATA, the terror network felt squeezed. The jihadi leaders in other groups came to the rescue of their brothers and in order to force the Pakistani security agencies to release pressure on their cornered comrades, attacks were executed inside India for attainment of this strategic objective. The jihadi strategists were not wrong in their assessment as they achieved their objective very skilfully by forcing the Pakistani government, army and media to divert their attention from the terrorists and instead waste their energies in a standoff against India. It is, therefore, less important to engage in futile ‘whodunnit’ debates. Instead we should worry more about the distraction that such incidents cause from the existential threat posed by terrorist gangs in Pakistan.

I have been reiterating the need for a comprehensive anti-extremism national policy in my earlier writings. Finally, the interior minister, on the eve of Independence Day, has announced the contours of a national security policy. Naming the policy a security policy takes some gloss off the new initiative. The grand madness that afflicts the affairs of the state needs a proactive national anti-extremism policy, which should address both the soft and hard sides of extremism. On the softer side of the scale, all those factors that sow seeds of extremism, and possible militancy, should be tackled. For instance the syllabi of schools, colleges, universities, madrassas and training academies of civil and military officers need significant changes. Media also needs to play its role in de-radicalising society. On the hard side of the scale, the full might of the state needs to be employed for suppression of militancy. Chaudhry Nisar did not do any service to the grand cause by employing a discourse that has a stamp of Imran Khan on it. The anti-terrorism initiative not only needs right measures but also the right discourse. I wish he was as explicit as his other cabinet colleague was a few days ago in Quetta. Lt General Abdul Qadir Baloch had, very categorically and unequivocally, declared in a press conference that we had no other option but to fight against terrorists, as it was a question of life and death. One hopes that the new policy is spearheaded by the spirit of Abdul Qadir and Zamurad Khan. The time for too many ifs and buts and windy speeches has long gone.

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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They came, they saw, they conquered

OVER A COFFEE : They came, they saw, they conquered — Dr Haider Shah

The recent jail break in Dera Ismail Khan had all the ingredients of a Hollywood thriller except one striking difference. It was not a piece of fiction. They came, they saw, and they conquered. One can’t help appreciating the ‘professional excellence’ of these terrorists in planning and executing their attacks. They perhaps performed better than the SEAL commandos that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad because while the US commandos left a damaged chopper behind, reportedly, the jail attackers had Rooh Afza when they were inside the jail they broke into.

The statements issued by the leaders of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) only reinforce the state of cluelessness among those who are supposed to clear the mess. The architects of a ‘New Pakistan’ have swiftly shifted the buck to the police, accusing the policemen of being cowards for not getting killed by the attackers who were armed with deadly military weapons. While the statements issued by the chief minister and minister of jails of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) are long on condemning the poorly equipped jail police, one fails to spot a single word of condemnation of the attackers. So brave are they themselves. There is a ‘big hand’ behind this attack. This was all the chief executive of the KP could offer as his analysis of the attack.

As usual the naive detectives are out with their magnifying glasses fixed on the Dera Ismail Khan jail. Officers have been suspended and a useless exercise of fixing the situation by posting new officers has also been carried out. The fact that the Bannu jail break, Dera Ismail Khan jail break, carnage in Kurram Agency and other similar terrorist incidents are all linked is conveniently ignored. The state has foregone its monopoly over the use of force and by appearing weak, confused and apologetic, it is increasingly becoming vulnerable to the emboldened and highly organised militant groups. Administrative measures, no doubt, need to be taken after every militant attack. But it is more important to learn some strategic level lessons from the Dera Ismail Khan jail attack that are listed next.

First, the incident again underscores the point I have been regularly mentioning that there is a lack of strategic clarity on the part of the state. While the attackers are motivated, organised and highly focused, those who are running the state are clueless and divided and are treating the situation as ‘business as usual’. Second, the state has miserably failed to differentiate between extraordinary and normal matters. The same red tape guides anti-terrorism preparation that is the hallmark of daily official business. It takes years to approve budgets and complete procurement of anti-terrorism gadgets and weaponry. On the other hand, the militants plan and execute their actions within no time. Third, our official planners are often long on words and short on finances when it comes to planning for imminent dangers. While we are being mercilessly humiliated by the militants on a regular basis, the fiasco of the Dera Ismail Khan jail break has revealed that all jails are without any surveillance cameras and mobile jamming equipment. What else can better demonstrate our official priorities and the level of preparedness against an existential threat? When you have to house hardened and indoctrinated terrorists, compare the nature of defensive facilities at the Guantanamo Bay prison with those of the Dera Ismail Khan and Bannu jails. Fourth, the attack once again proved that there exists a strategic alliance between various types of sectarian outfits, Kashmiri jihadists and al Qaeda-affiliated militant groups. This was also one of the notable conclusions of late Saleem Shahzad’s investigative work-based book Inside Al Qaeda. The attackers took with them the mastermind of a bloody sectarian attack in Dera Ismail Khan besides other Taliban commanders. Fifth, the historical continuity of certain problems should not be overlooked. We did not give any serious consideration to regularising the tribal areas and extending the law of the land to these ungoverned areas as FATA proved a goldmine for avaricious local elders and the political administration. If history is used as a guide, we find that the problem of attacks by militants from ungoverned tribal areas has a long history. For instance a report referring to Fakir of Ipi in the London Gazette, August 18, 1939 states on page 566: “A gang, under Mehr Dil, an outlaw, based on the precipitous Junighar Hills in the Ahmadzai Wazir Salient, to the north of Bannu, made attacks on villages in the Bannu and Kohat Districts and on traffic on the Bannu-Kohat road…On the night of the 23rd-24th July, Mehr Dil’s gang, reinforced by local sympathisers and bad characters, raided Bannu City. Property was looted and houses and shops were burnt…The gang dispersed over a wide area rendering pursuit during hours of darkness difficult.” A detailed enquiry report by an investigator on behalf of the Congress Party had then prophetically warned: “To regard ‘the Bannu Raid’ of the 23rd July, 1938, as an isolated calamity would be to miss the true perspective of the picture. It is but one conspicuous detail of a vast panorama which must be viewed against the entire background.”

The Dera Ismail Khan jail attack has once again underscored the need for a clear anti-terrorism strategy at the national level. The solution lies in launching a carefully planned operation against the miscreants and ending the ungoverned status of the tribal areas. Like energy and Balochistan, terrorism and FATA also need the urgent attention of the prime minister of Pakistan.

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