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Saturday, August 24, 2019

Enter, the Night Watchman


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After 16 years of sitting on the bench, cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan has walked into the middle of a pitch that could upstage the best in the game. It could also send him smartingback to the pavilion.

But ever since Khan’s October rally in Lahore earlier this year – that drew unprecedented crowds reminiscent of the outpour at Benazir Bhutto’s return to Pakistan in 1986 – he’s padded up to bat. He’s leading from the front, protesting against drone attacks on Pakistan territory and calling for mid term elections. And the people are coming out in large numbers to support him. From Punjab to Sindh, the public is lapping up every word he utters.

As for now Khan is playing to the gallery. He has survived the long and tedious course since launching his party the Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in 1996, and weathered the indifference and political alienation to emerge what many see as an ‘alternative’.

Riding on a strong anti-US wave, and in some ways even helping strengthen it, Khan minces no words in lambasting the government for its alliance with the US. “Pakistan is fighting the war only for dollars,” he thundered at a recent rally, adding that there was ‘no end to it’.

After the NATO attack on Pakistan’s army posts in the Mohmand Agency, Khan is clear that it is time for Pakistan to walk out of the alliance. The people, angry and bitter, listen in silence bursting into loud cheers as the handsome cricketer says it as it is. ‘Imran Khan is the only politician talking about breaking the alliance with the US’ say those who spoke to this correspondent.

Khan is not a powerful orator, but the Pakistanis have decided to tune in to his talk. His arguments are simple. Simplistic even. Get the Americans out of the country. Get rid of corrupt politicians. Bring justice and development to the people and peace to the region. His words carry conviction, because he’s seen as rich but honest, elite but pro-poor and while there are charges of arrogance that find its way into media, his assurances and assertions seem to be cutting through the opposition with a velocity that has other political parties worried. Media has dubbed it as ‘Imran Khan Tsunami’ others such as Ahmad, a taxi driver from Peshawar says, “Imran sahab is good. He is saying what we all are saying. This government is corrupt and the Americans are destroying our country.”

Khan’s most loyal supporters come from the upwardly mobile young generation in the cities. “We love him,” exudes, Heena Tariq, a banker in Islamabad. Rich and beautiful, the trendily dressed 28-year-old woman is determined to join Khan’s campaign.

“I am prepared to work in his campaign office, like all my friends, we think he can change the face of Pakistan and we will support him," she insists. Why? “Because he is honest and he’s not going to tolerate all this nonsense. He is genuine,” is the immediate response. Analysts point out that the support from the urban middle class shows a shift in perception.

“He’s attracting a huge section of that class towards voting who generally root for undemocratic technocratic and military options. Even if he does not score big, even if he achieves very little, it will be enough to revolutionise the middle class to participate and compete in politics and promote growth of right and left-wing middle class parties later,” avers Dr Niaz Murtaza a political analyst at the Centre for South Asia Studies, University of California. It is the emergence of this constituency, largely ambivalent towards grassroot politics that draws the ire of the Islamist leader and chief of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Maulana Fazlur Rehman. Asked whether he would support Imran Khan’s PTI he said that Khan was giving “rise to a culture that we cannot support at all”.

Some see the rise of Imran Khan as directly proportional to the disillusionment with the existing politics in the country. Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari is seen as corrupt. Most also reckon if there was a poll he’d be voted as the most unpopular politician in the country. This does not augur well for Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) that has been at the helm of affairs ever since Pervez Musharraf was exiled to a flat amid kabab joints on Edgware Road, London.

“Rather than introducing reformatory impressions in political compositions or economy, Imran’s supporters hold aloft the conventional whip of corruption to lash others with, once in a while playing to the gallery with fashionable opinions against drones and America,” says Shahzad Chaudhury, a defence and political analyst who retired as air vice marshal from the Pakistan air force.

People on the street, however, do not hesitate to voice their anger against the corrupt regime. It is obvious that there is a huge deficit of trust that is turning the tide against the current government.

The story is no different in the politically most significant state, Punjab, where the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) is in control. It’s leader Nawaz Sharif is not seen as a plausible alternative, because of innumerable charges of corruption against him and his strained relations with Pakistan army.

It is not clear whether the Army is supporting Imran Khan, though most analysts contend that it is not. At the very most, the Army is watching to see whether Khan can pull off the groundswell of support and structure the PTI as a party to contend with.

“The army is indifferent, just watching,” says former general indicating that it is not hostile to Khan either. In his view Khan, “can be a choice if he manages to build the organisation and emerge as an alternative that can form a government…with a little nudge and push from the Army.”

Maulana Fazlur Rehman is worried about this ‘possibility’. Asked if Khan could form a government in the next elections he says, “it could happen, if the Agencies support him”. And are they supporting him? “Of course, they are. It is visible,” is the quick retort.

This view is also borne out by political pundits that are closely observing the changes in PTI. On November 27, former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, seen to be close to the Pakistan military establishment, joined the PTI prompting the nation's widely read newspaper Dawn, to comment that Qureshi has opted for ‘vice-captaincy’ under Khan. Two other controversial persons to join the PTI include former interior minister of state Zafar Iqbal who oversaw the 2007 Lal Masjid raid and Mian Azhar, who stood with the former president, Pervez Musharraf when he subverted the Pakistan Constitution.

The pundits aver that these shifts indicate that the Army and the ISI are serious about PTI as an alternative and that’s why they are packing it with what is viewed as ‘establishment’ representatives. And that Imran Khan, knowingly or not, is not as independent an entity as he and his supporters believe or would like others to believe.

In fact, Khan was questioned on this in a popular TV show Frontline on the Express News channel recently. The young members in the audience asked him repeatedly why he had chosen to induct people known to be close to ‘establishment’. Though on defensive, Khan replied that “if you enlist politicians, they often come with baggage” and then quickly added a postscript saying that if “you are asking me to close doors to PTI…the party then would have no one in its ranks”. He also did not completely reject the charge that PTI enjoyed the tacit support of the ‘establishment’, just as the PML-Q and the PML-N had, protesting feebly, “The establishment cannot bring about a Tsunami”.

While it stills remains to be proven whether the ‘establishment’ is putting its weight behind Khan, most agree that its support will be essential for Imran Khan at the hustings.

For the time being before PTI can be pitched as workable alternative it needs to put its house in order. This is something that both the Army and Khan understand. The problem is that the PTI for all purposes has been a one-man show for the last 16 years. The party lacks organisational structure and party workers plus there are no recognizable faces to front its politics.

Yet despite the criticism from the young brigade, older and more experienced political observers feel that people like Qureshi would be an asset and not a handicap to the Tehreek-e-Insaf party. He could help erode the base of the PPP in Sindh as well as encourage an influx of politicians into PTI from other parts of Pakistan.

Others opine that though it’s true that Khan needs more ‘faces’, his appeal would lie in inducting ‘fresh’ candidates and that ‘the baggage’ of controversial inductees could work against him.

Khan on his part has been trying to assure that his party would not accept the financially corrupt and that each member would have to embrace his party’s agenda and ideology. He said this on the Frontline show as well, “This is Pakistan, not Switzerland, I have to move with what I have”.

Meanwhile, the Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani continues to draw respect in Pakistan. He is not seen as corrupt or interested in jumping into the political fray. Despite Memogate, the view in Islamabad is that the Army under Kayani is not interested in taking over the government and that it would prefer a popular politician to take the reigns. There is also unanimity of opinion in that Kayani is ‘fed up’ with the PPP government and would like a change that Imran Khan could well represent.

Some also view the Army’s watch-and-see policy towards PTI as a temporary tactic that serves a larger agenda. “Khan just about ensures that Pakistan’s unilateral ‘ceasefire’ on the war on terror becomes a lasting ceasefire and that all that is left for the US is to learn to come to terms with it. Inexplicably, Khan helps the Pakistan government to withstand the US pressure to ‘do more’ in the war,” contends MK Bhadrakumar, a career diplomat who has served as Indian ambassador to Islamabad, Kabul, Tashkent and Moscow.

Hidden agenda and corruption apart it is clear that Khan’s appeal largely derives from his personality. “PTI’s primary scheme turns out to be one of lauding Imran’s personality. ‘Join Imran’ not ‘join PTI’ is what you’ll hear his supporters crying. Naturally, when asked to name a dozen names who would assist him reform Pakistan, Imran fails miserably to name even one,” says Ayesha Ijaz Khan, a political and legal expert.

Structuring the party is not going to be easy. Khan hopes to get enough candidates that can win and says that he will give out tickets on merit. With the election expected to be held mid term, in the second half of 2012, anti –Khan rumours are already doing the rounds. Personal attacks involving his ex-wife Jemima Khan being among favourites.

Interestingly a known India baiter, Dr Shireen Mazari once close to former President Pervez Musharraf joined PTI recently as its information secretary. But she left almost as soon as she joined. Her resignation reportedly stemmed from the ‘soft stand’ taken by Imran Khan on India. One reason given for her withdrawal is that she has protested on the antecedents of politicians flocking to PTI. But the general impression is that Khan’s refusal to lock horns with India has been the real reason for her exit.

It has been noted that Khan has kept away from stirring passions against India. Saying that Kashmir should be placed on the back burner and could be easily resolved through negotiations. In an interview to Indian TV show host Karan Thapar, Khan in fact declared Kashmir to be a human rights issue not a ‘territorial dispute’.

“I really do not understand his foreign policy. Does he have one? So far, from whatever little I have read or heard, he has only stated what is not his foreign policy. But, I don’t remember his stating what his policy is,” reminds Brig (retd) Shaukat Qadir, a security analyst at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute.

Despite this lack of clarity, the Army doesn’t appear to be ruffled. Its strategy so far has been to keep the anti-India rhetoric on the boil, “Taliban and other militants are backed in order to engage India in a proxy war and the Haqqanis are being kept to render protection against any attack by India on the eastern and western borders simultaneously. All in all, it is our armed forces’ India-centric policy that is responsible for our problems. Has Imran Khan anything tangible to change this? I am yet to hear anything tangible,” says Dr Tariq Rahman, a distinguished professor and director of the National Institute of Pakistan Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

And so, Imran – The Tsunami Khan – appears to have his task cut out before him. The crowds and the adulation are but momentary and will not translate into votes in the next general elections without a convincing agenda and an organization of leaders and workers that could withstand the scrutiny of the adoring and yet critical masses.

The Army, ever watchful, holds the option of backing him if he consolidates, or dropping him if his political batting fails to gather momentum. At the moment, however, he is setting the game for his political opponents to follow. Will he be the man of the match or the man of the series? That only time can tell.


‘Pakistan is not Libya’

The NATO helicopter strike on the Pakistan’s army posts in Mohmand Agency has united Pakistan in a bitter and vociferous anti-America reaction, cutting across political and sectarian divide. From the common man on the street to strategic expert everyone is demanding a ‘stern’ action to make US 'pay’ for violation of Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty.

In the early hours of November 26, Pakistan spent almost two hours trying to get a response from the unified central command post along its border with Afghanistan to the attack by the NATO helicopters on its posts. Twenty-four army soldiers, including two officers – Maj Mujahid Hussain and Capt Usman Ali – were killed before the attack was called off.

The government responded to the horror that engulfed Pakistan by blocking the supply routes to the Shamsi air base, directing the US and NATO forces to vacate the area and announcing its decision not to attend the Bonn conference on Afghanistan.

But as rumours spread that the government was looking for a way out, the Army stepped in. In its first briefing it blamed the US forces for ‘unprovoked’ and ‘senseless attack’. Soon after General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani issued orders for immediate and strong retaliation against any movement of foreign forces on Pakistan’s soil.

The skeptics who expected a quick reconciliation were forced into silence, as the weeks passed with Pakistan government refusing to relent. Efforts by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to persuade Pakistan to attend the Bonn Conference, supplemented by efforts by European leaders also did not bear the desired result. US secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s appeal to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani urging him to review the decision, similarly failed to change the government’s stand. Given the widespread anger and belief that any concession at this stage could lead to fall of the government, Gilani made it clear that Pakistan would not be attending the Bonn Conference. The refusal is seen as a set back to determining the roadmap that was deliberated on at the conference. In a twist to the developments, an article written by a US-based businessman Mansoor Ijas in a UK paper in October earlier this year, has gathered traction generating intense debate on the issue of air strikes on Pakistan soil.

According to Ijas both President Asif Ali Zardari and Pakistan ambassador to the US Hussain Haqqani were informed about the US Navy Seal operation to extract the al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden from Abbotabad. The two, Ijas claims had agreed to the operation to isolate General Kayani and the ISI chief General Shuja Pasha and replace them with more pliable officers.

It is well known in Islamabad that relations between Zardari and Kayani are far from cordial, and that the Army chief while not interested in a political post is ‘just about tolerating Zardari’. The article has fanned suspicion about Zardari’s motives not only among general populace but also among members of the PPP. At the centre of controversy is a letter sent by Haqqani, reportedly on behalf of Zardari, to the US top brass asking to fend off a possible military coup post Abbotabad operation. This has come to be known as the Memogate scandal.

President Zardari’s popularity has hit a new low in Pakistan. Of late he’s been keeping a low profile, leaving Prime Minister Gilani to handle the mess.
Gilani who is seen as a master tactician, has tried to deflect the attention of the media, by bringing Zardari’s son Bilal to political centre stage. Bilal is being hailed as PPPs candidate for prime minister, in what is clearly a bid to retain Zardari-Bhutto hold on the party before Pakistan goes to the polls.

However, the immediate challenge before the government is how to overcome NATO’s recent strikes. ‘Pakistan is not Libya’ warn former diplomats in the media, urging the government to formulate a hard and decisive stand against such action on Pakistan soil. It is also obvious that US-Pak ties cannot be snapped and all eyes are on Kayani to ensure that relationship is repaired in a way that Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty is not breached again.

The US meanwhile, has been making conciliatory noises with the Pentagon and US state department officials conceding that Pakistan’s reaction was ‘natural’ given the circumstances. On December 4, President Barack Obama also phoned Pakistan President to offer ‘condolences’ for the deaths of two dozen soldiers killed in the NATO air strikes.
So far there are no indications whether the thaw, that all expect would set in, will set aside the decision taken by the Army and the government. In Islamabad the consensus is that money, while desirable, would not be acceptable to the people, “it cannot compensate for what has happened” say insiders. There is talk of a list of conditions, including a commitment by the US to stop targeting Pakistan territory. Much of this is however speculation, with the top Army brass and the government maintaining a tight lipped silence over negotiations, if any.

America on its part is playing it safe, as President Barack Obama prepares for US elections. The Republican campaign in the US has effectively demonised Pakistan to a point where apologies and concessions may not go down well with American electorate, thereby making it difficult for the current administration to utter the usual platitudes without impacting the run up to the polls.

The recent events have created one of the biggest challenges to the US-Pak relations. While both realise that it is essential to paper over the divide the going is not expected to be easy.

Seema Mustafa

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017