Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Tales from the Frontier: Al Qaeda versus Taliban

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 27th Mar 07

Mullah Dadullah Akhund, the top Taliban operational commander in Afghanistan, will be delighted about last week, despite failing to bring to heel Operation Achilles, the current NATO offensive in Helmand province, and despite losing almost 100 fighters in just a couple of days. After all, Dadullah’s younger brother, Mansoor Ahmed, came home on Monday from an Afghan government jail in Kabul, released along with four other top Taliban prisoners in exchange for Daniele Mastrogiacomo, an Italian journalist who had been kidnapped two weeks earlier. The Italian government is believed to have left Afghan president Hamid Karzai with no choice but to release the prisoners, threatening to pull Italy’s 1900 soldiers out of Afghanistan if Mastrogiacomo was killed. Pleased with the outcome, the Taliban has promised to kidnap more foreign journalists.

Dadullah’s penchant for bloodily slaughtering prisoners on propaganda videotapes hides a load of sibling solicitude love so deep that he promised to “relax for a while” and let his brother run the Taliban in his place. But more than his brother’s return, Dadullah’s jubilation was about a huge diplomatic coup that he pulled off last week: resolving an ideological schism in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP), between local tribal Taliban fighters and foreign Al Qaeda militants, mainly Uzbeks, who settled there after being driven out of Afghanistan in 2001. Dadullah’s diplomacy has cleared the decks for the launch of the Taliban’s Afghanistan offensive this year.

The Taliban and Al Qaeda fundamentally disagreed over whom to fight. The Taliban, practical Pashtuns bred in the tradition of carrying jehad into Afghanistan from safe havens in the NWFP, argued that their fight was against Western infidels in Afghanistan, not against the Pakistani army which signed a peace deal with tribal Maliks (chiefs) last year and withdrew into cantonments. But the Uzbeks and Arabs of Al Qaeda were in no way inclined to let sleeping dogs lie. Their jehad was directed at “crusader’s ally” General Musharraf’s government as much as Hamid Karzai’s and the NATO forces in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda’s aim was nothing short of establishing the Islamic Emirate of Pakistan.

Dadullah resolved the disagreement in good Pashtun style, negotiating with a gun held to the opponent’s head. Last Tuesday, Taliban fighters in South Waziristan attacked Uzbek commander Tahir Yaldashev’s forces; in two days of battle, over 100 Uzbeks were killed and hundreds more surrounded by Taliban fighters. Having flashed a glint of steel, Dadullah despatched negotiators who persuaded the rattled Uzbeks to “maintain peace” in the NWFP. The Taliban and Al Qaeda will no longer dissipate strength fighting Pakistani soldiers in Waziristan; instead, they will cross the Durand Line to fight NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Islamabad is jubilant. It claims the Pashtuns are cleaning out their own house, expelling the foreign militants. Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao declared that this validates the wisdom of last year’s cease-fire with tribal Maliks. What he glosses over is that the tribal commanders who routed Al Qaeda in Waziristan last week, chieftains like Sadiq Noor and Abdul Khaliq, are known Taliban men. Among Dadullah’s negotiators who mediated the Taliban-Al Qaeda agreement are Baitullah Mehsud (perpetrator of several recent suicide attacks inside Pakistan, including the killing of 42 Pakistan Army soldiers in Dargai in November 2006) and Sirajuddin Haqqani, the son of legendary Taliban commander, Jalaluddin Haqqani. In effect, Islamabad has handed over the NWFP to the Taliban.

Dadullah’s diplomacy has trumped that of America: he has created a secure haven to press operations against NATO. In contrast, US diplomacy has run aground on the self-imposed condition that pushing Musharraf (Our Man in Islamabad) beyond a point will destabilise his regime. Now, however, Washington may have tossed aside the kid gloves. Dick Cheney’s plain-speaking lunch in Islamabad with General Musharraf on 26th February was the first harbinger of US frustration. That alone wouldn’t give Musharraf sleepless nights; he’s heard all that before. What is enormously worrisome for him, embattled as he already is by protests against the sacking of Pakistan’s Chief Justice, are new US statements suggesting that he honour his commitment to hang up his uniform this year.

The general will correctly reason that this is not a sudden upsurge of American nostalgia for Pakistan’s long-dead democracy. He will understand that George W. Bush, desperate for success in Afghanistan to offset the failure in Iraq, is deadly serious about Pakistan cracking down on the Taliban in the NWFP.

That leaves Musharraf in a pickle. On the one hand he could order the Pakistan Army to resume operations in NWFP. That would stir enormous resentment, not just within the Islamist parties, but also among his commanders and troops who really underpin Musharraf’s continuation in power. By ignoring their views, Musharraf would end up ousted, dead, or as Pakistan’s Hamid Karzai, propped up and protected by US support, and increasingly out of touch with his own country.

On the other hand, the general could defy Uncle Sam. If he does that, Washington will intensify dialogue with Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, and look among the senior ranks of Pakistan’s military for more unquestioning support. But will another leader provide the US with better results in the NWFP? Whoever replaces Musharraf will face the same choices.

Who said being a dictator was easy? Or a superpower?

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Pakistani democracy: khakhi versus khadi

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 13th March 2007

Every now and then, it is useful to be brought face-to-face with something so obvious that it tends to be overlooked. Last week, General Pervez Musharraf reminded us that democracy in Pakistan remains a laughable farce with his unceremonious removal of Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, Chief Justice (CJ) of Pakistan’s Supreme Court on the deliciously ironic grounds of “misuse of authority”. The unlamented Justice Chaudhary sealed his own fate by combining a taste for the perks of office with a penchant for judicial activism ill-suited to Pakistan. Inspired perhaps by his counterparts in New Delhi, Pakistan’s CJ ruled against the crony privatisation of Pakistan Steel Mills, raised awkward questions about police corruption and took up cudgels on behalf of unfortunates who were “missing” in security forces operations in Baluchistan and Sindh. The regime was clear, Justice Chaudhary had to go; this sort of loose cannon could not be relied upon to adjudicate in potential cases relating to Musharraf’s re-election, his continuation as army chief, or the postponement of general elections by a year or more.

But the medieval power dynamics within Pakistan are illustrated less by the chief justice’s departure than by the way he was sacked. Mr Chaudhary’s departure-knell started tolling three weeks ago, when a well-known toady of the Pakistani establishment, Naeem Bukhari, insinuated in an “open letter” in a Pakistani daily that the CJ was guilty of corruption, nepotism, arrogance and self-aggrandizement. For the politically sophisticated citizens of Pakistan, the only question thereafter was: when will Chaudhry go? His hour came last Friday when he was summoned to President Musharraf’s “Camp Office” in the army chief’s residence in Rawalpindi. (Musharraf occupies the presidential and army chief’s residences, as well as their offices.) The Chief Justice of Pakistan was informed that he was being made “non-functional”, until he was formally dismissed through the constitutional mechanism of a Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) headed by five top judges.

For several hours, Justice Chaudhary remained confined to the “Camp Office” while Justice Javed Iqbal, the yes-man chosen to replace him, was sworn in by another friendly judge. Acting Chief Justice Iqbal superseded a senior colleague, Rana Bhagwandas, who was hit by an unfortunate triple whammy: he was a Hindu, he was outspoken too, and he was unavailable for the swearing in as he was visiting India. Soon after the oath-taking ceremony the SJC convened, chaired by a beaming Javed Iqbal. Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry could begin retired life as early as the next meeting. Until then, he remains incommunicado, effectively under house arrest.

While sacking chief justices is not quite the national sport, taming the judiciary is an established political tactic in Pakistan. In 1997, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif conspired with a cabal of judges to remove Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah from office. Shah’s offence: ruling against a constitutional amendment designed to let Nawaz corner more power. In 2000, Musharraf sacked Chief Justice Saiduzzaman Siddiqui (along with five colleagues) after they demurred from taking an oath of loyalty to the military government.

It is difficult to sympathise with a divided judiciary that has institutionally assisted in its own emasculation. And in the political food chain that is Pakistan’s polity, the judiciary assists in making other institutions, like the media, irrelevant. Even while the CJ was being dismissed in Army House, the Lahore High Court bulldozed Geo TV, Pakistan’s largest private news channel, into “sincerely regretting” a news expose in which court officials were shown accepting bribes. The court directed that Geo TV must display its “bona fides” by televising apologies at regular timings for several days continuously.

Ironically, amidst these shenanigans, General Musharraf is evaluating a Vision Document 2030 aimed at implanting in Pakistan “unfettered democracy at its natural and optimal levels… to avoid democratic disruptions as happened in the past”. But, as Vision Document 2030 points out, the country’s military is more powerful today than ever before. A divided and obsequious polity and civil society that uses the military as a political arbiter for internal disputes, ensures that the khaki clout remains intact. The military, in turn, skilfully perpetuates political, ideological and sectarian factionalism, which consolidates its control over politics.

For India, this presents a dilemma. While influential decision-makers in New Delhi believe that General Musharraf alone offers a chance for a comprehensive peace settlement, there is also recognition that long-term stability must rest on a liberal and democratic Pakistan. For the present, however, a re-ordering of Pakistan’s polity is unlikely because the military has succeeded in defining that country’s national agenda entirely around the issue of military security. As Lahore-based political scientist, Ayesha Siddiqua notes, “Since the creation of the country, it was projected as an insecure homeland state for the Muslims which could only be protected through greater military security.”

Only India can diminish the “Indian bogey” that dominates Pakistan’s national consciousness; Pakistan’s military will not reduce its own clout by assisting in this process. While the peace dialogue has set this process in motion, hard line statements from New Delhi have undermined Indian interests in building a more benign image in Pakistan; such statements continue to empower khakhi-clad demagogues over khadi-clad ones. While Pakistan’s political and civil society structures must swim for themselves, India can throw them a life jacket by a mobilising a more nuanced mix of soft and hard power.

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Defence budget: still behind a veil

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 6th Mar 07

On 28th February the Finance Minister took 100 minutes and 12,808 words to present his budget proposals before parliament. The defence budget was dealt with in just 36 words: “I propose to increase the allocation for defence to Rs.96,000 crore. This will include 41,922 crore for capital expenditure. Needless to say, any additional requirement for the security of the nation will be provided.”

Mr Chidambaram’s brevity blurs some important issues.

The first piece of obfuscation centres around the total amount being spent by the government on defence. The figure of Rs 96,000 crores includes only the revenue expenditures on the Army (Rs 34,086 crores), Navy (Rs 6968 crores), Air Force (Rs 10,193 crores), Ordnance Factories (a profit of Rs 356 crores), the Defence R&D Organisation (Rs 3186 crores), and capital expenditure for modernising the military (Rs 41,922 crores). These comprise Demands No 22 to 27 in the Demands for Grants. Inexplicably omitted from the calculation is the expenditure on the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and on defence pensions, which form Demands No 20 and 21.

As a result, the figure of 96,000 crores underestimates actual spending on defence. If the sums of Rs 2046 crores allocated for the MoD and Rs 14,649 crores allocated for defence pensions are taken into account, India will actually spend Rs 1,12,695 crores on defence in 2007-08. That amounts to over 16% of government spending, not 14% as portrayed.

The logic for keeping the MoD and pension allocations out of the defence budget is incomprehensible. The MoD budget is not spent entirely, or even mainly, on civilian employees and the ministry secretariat. Hundreds of crore rupees are allocated to regular combat units like the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry, which the budget notes categorise as “a full fledged Regiment of Indian Army having 15 battalions apart from a Regimental Centre.” Hundreds of crores are allocated to the coast guard, defence-affiliated units whose budget used to earlier be hidden in the Revenue Department allocations. Similarly, defence pensions are directly related to military manpower expenses; excluding pensions from the defence budget is as justifiable as excluding soldiers’ salaries.

Fudging the defence budget is now institutionalised, a trend that began with Indira Gandhi in 1970, and picked up pace in the late 1980s. In each budget speech from independence up to 1969 finance ministers began their enumeration of government expenditures by dividing them into defence and civil. India’s first finance minister, RK Shanmukham Chetty, set the trend on 28th February 1948: “The total expenditure for next year is estimated at Rs 257.37 crores of which Defence Services will account for 121.08 crore and Civil expenditure for Rs 136.29 crore. Following the customary procedure, I shall first deal with the Defence estimates.”

That transparency was thrown overboard in 1970 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, presenting the budget as Finance Minister, indulged her penchant for secrecy by avoiding any mention of defence expenditure. And secrecy gave way to full-blown deception in the late 1980s, when external conditions imposed on India in a foreign exchange crisis forced the government to disguise defence spending. With no such imperatives today, the habit continues.

Mr Chidambaram’s brief statement raised another important point. He mentions only the capital expenditure of Rs.41,922 crore, forcing the observer into a back-of-the-envelope calculation to deduce the military’s revenue expenditure of Rs 54,078 crores. That is an increase of Rs 2,538 crores, or just 5%, over last year’s revenue expenditure of Rs 51,540 crores. With salaries, stores and raw material prices rising at an average of 10% annually, the indications are that the Finance Minister could have under-allocated the revenue budget. This would force the Finance Ministry to resort to supplementary budgeting later in the year, raising defence expenditure further.