All is well in the Islamic Republic


Celebrations are in order: The boys are getting their toys and the political-industrial elite getting its doles


Nawaz Sharif who looked visibly burnt out and slightly off-colour in the first nine months of his third stint as prime minister is suddenly on the go. Whether it is talks with the TTP, building bridges with the opposition or taking the military on board he seems to have wrested the initiative that hitherto he was visibly lacking.

On the plus side, a tenuous ceasefire with the TTP (Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan) is holding, while a semblance of a negotiating process is in place. Taking Imran Khan, his worst critic and potential nemesis, was also a clever move by Sharif.

The PTI chief’s wholeheartedly endorsing the government’s Taliban policy gives Nawaz the much-needed space. Without calling another APC (All Parties Conference) the opposition is on board on how to talk to the TTP.

This strengthens Sharif’s hands in dealing with the Army that has declined to be formally associated with the newly formed negotiating committee of bureaucrats. Frequent photo-ops between Nawaz Sharif and the COAS Gen Raheel Sharif also seem to be a deliberate move meant to send a symbolic message that the military and the civilian government are on the same page.

Nevertheless one should not expect a dramatic breakthrough in talks with the Taliban. Terms of endearment are yet to be spelt out.

Demands of the TTP, like releasing prisoners in captivity of the state and withdrawal of troops from North Waziristan, relate directly to the military. And here lies the rub.

Whether it is talks with the TTP, building bridges with the opposition or taking the military on board he seems to have wrested the initiative…

Will Gen Raheel Sharif be willing to let loose those who perpetrated worst kinds of atrocities against his men? Similarly withdrawing the military from the badlands has far-reaching strategic ramifications inextricably linked to the post-ISAF forces withdrawal from Afghanistan expected to start in real earnest in a few months.

According to some well-informed western sources, a military operation in the tribal belt right now does not serve short term US interests in the region. Washington is apprehensive of a blowback of the Taliban towards Kabul in case they are forced to flee from their sanctuaries disrupting Afghan presidential elections due to be held in a month’s time.

Paradoxically recent dash of CIA chief John Brennan to Pakistan just to visit the GHQ and meet the COAS and DG ISI was to goad Islamabad not to launch an offensive against the Taliban and stay its hand for the time being. Hence the question of launching an operation remains to be, not if but when.

Imran wants to give peace a chance, saying that thousands of operations have been launched in the badlands of Pakistan, but none succeeded. But the contrary is also true. Peace deals with the Taliban have also invariably fallen through.

A case in point is the Swat valley, where after an unequal peace deal bordering on capitulation, the Taliban played havoc with the local population. In the end analysis, the military had to launch an operation to flush out the militants from the valley led by the TTP’s incumbent head Mulla Fazlullah.

This is not to say that incipient negotiations with the TTP are bound to fail. Nonetheless judging from past history and in the backdrop of the complicated matrix of the stakeholders involved, chances of success are slim.

In this context Islamabad’s relations with Washington have visibly improved since the exit of general Kayani as COAS and, prior to that, advent of Nawaz Sharif as prime minister. Sharif is going to have his second meeting since becoming prime minister with the US president Barak Obama later this month at The Hague on the sidelines of the Nuclear Summit.

Irritants like the suspension of NATO supplies have been removed through the fig leaf of an edict of the Peshawar High Court – probably a face saving devicefor the PTI. Limited but precise operations launched by the military in North Waziristan on the militants sanctuaries is more than what military ever did under Gen Kayani.

All this is good news for Washington but not necessarily for the long-term interests of Pakistan. The finance minister, Ishaq Dar, glibly claimed that the US $1.5 billion parked by Saudi Arabia in Pakistan Development Fund is an acknowledgement of the strong economic performance of the government. Islamabad has also been promised oil on deferred payments for a year from the same source.

All very good, but where lies the beef? Can getting external infusions be a substitute to reviving the economy by restructuring and initiating good governance?

Despite protestations of the foreign office to the contrary, a perception is developing that Islamabad is being roped in to be part of the anti-Syria and anti-Iran alliance on the bidding of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The government has procrastinated on the Iran-Pakistan Gas Pipeline project ostensibly to avoid sanctions. But the real reason is perhaps not to displease the Sharifs’ saviours, the Saudis.

It is not merely a coincidence that our leadership that is so fond of visiting China, Turkey and Saudi Arabia at the drop of a hat has conspicuously omitted Tehran, its Islamic neighbor next door from its itinerary. Being part of the US-led CENTO and SEATO alliances or becoming the lynchpin of the west in the name of jihad in Afghanistan, did not serve Pakistan’s interests well in the past.

Perhaps exigencies of personal survival force our leaders to keep flogging the dead horse of the economy through external infusions. But all this comes at a price to be paid by the people of Pakistan in the ultimate analysis.

Mishandling of the economy and alleged corruption of the Zardari government was the mantra of the PML-N government while in opposition. Of course, the Sharifs and their trusted lieutenant Ishaq Dar get brownie points for trying hard and running a relatively tight ship.

The dollar-rupee parity coming down to around Rs100 to a dollar and successfully negotiating a loan from Saudi Arabia are being hailed as spectacular achievements. More money is expected from the CSF (Coalition Support Fund), proceeds from privatization and auction of 3G licenses.

All very good, but where lies the beef? Can getting external infusions be a substitute to reviving the economy by restructuring and initiating good governance? For example, raising the tax to GDP ratio –one of the lowest in the world – remains an elusive goal, certainly not part of the feudal-urban ruling elite’s agenda.

Meanwhile the finance minister met the COAS assuring him that the military’s financial demands will be met in the next budget. The boys getting their toys and the political-industrial elite getting their doles, all is well in the Islamic Republic. Celebrations are in order.

The enigmatic former military dictator Pervez Musharraf remains comfortably ensconced in a military hospital. He has obstinately refused to appear before a civilian tribunal, thereby making a complete mockery of civilian courts. So much for democracy and respect for democratic institutions!


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