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Walking a tightrope: Pakistan struggles to juggle multiple balls

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Pakistan risks falling off the tightrope it walks as it attempts to balance its relations with rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Developments in recent days, including this weekend’s Baloch nationalist attack on a luxury hotel in the strategic port city of Gwadar and a legal dispute over completion of a gas pipeline against the backdrop of Saudi-Iranian-Qatari competition for the Pakistani gas market, suggest that Pakistan is caught between a rock and a hard place.

The South Asian nation’s seemingly unsustainable tightrope walk is likely to have consequences for the security of China’s massive US$45 billion investment in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a crown jewel of Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative; an approximately US$10 billion planned Saudi investment in a refinery and a copper mine in the troubled Pakistani province of Balochistan; and Pakistani hopes of getting a grip on  political violence in a bid to attract further badly needed foreign investment and avoid sanctioning for inadequate counterterrorism measures.

The assault on the highly secured hilltop Zaver Pearl Continental Hotel Gwadar, part of Pakistan’s largest luxury hotel chain, in which four people, including three gunmen were killed, was the second incident since Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani last month agreed to step up security cooperation along their 959-kilometre long border.

Many Baloch, members of an ethnic minority on both sides of the border, feel economically disadvantaged and marginalized with a minority harbouring nationalist aspirations. Security-led repressive policies by both Iran and Pakistan have fuelled militancy and offer ample opportunity for manipulation by regional powers.

In an emailed statement claiming responsibility for the hotel attack, Baloch Liberation Army (BL) spokesman Jihand Baloch said this weekend’s attack targeted “Chinese and other investors who were staying at the PC hotel.” The hotel was believed to have few guests because of Ramadan.

In an earlier statement issued last week after an attack on a coal mine in which five people were killed, Mr. Baloch asserted that “Balochistan is a war-torn region and we will not allow any investments until the independence of Balochistan.”

BLA operatives have in the past seven months hit various Chinese targets beyond the boundaries of Balochistan, including a convoy transporting Chinese engineers in Karachi and the People’s Republic’s consulate in the city.

Baloch nationalist militancy is not the only problem confronting Pakistani security forces in the strategic southwest of the country. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack last month on a market in the Baloch capital of Quetta frequented by Hazaras, a beleaguered Shiite minority, in which 19 people were killed and dozens injured.

Iran blamed allegedly Saudi and US-backed Balochistan-based Sunni Muslim militants for an assault in February on the Iranian side of the border that killed 27 Revolutionary Guards.

In an apparent bid to build confidence, Mr. Khan admitted during his visit to Tehran that militants operating from Pakistan had attacked targets in Iran but vowed to put an end to that.

Complicating Mr. Khan’s efforts to walk a fine line between Saudi Arabia and Iran and safeguard crucial Chinese and future Saudi investment is the fact that the Trump administration’s stepped up maximum pressure campaign against the Islamic republic is restricting the South Asian nation’s ability to live up to prior commitments to Iran and fuelling Iranian concern that Saudi Arabia is able to influence Pakistani policy.

Jeddah-based Arab News quoted Mobin Saulat, the managing director of Pakistan’s state-owned Inter State Gas Systems, as advising his Iranian counterparts that US sanctions were preventing it from completing the Pakistani leg of an agreed gas pipeline despite statements by Messrs. Khan and Rouhani that they were seeking to enhance connectivity between their two countries.

Iranian suspicion of Saudi covert activity in Balochistan as well as the kingdom’s ability to influence Pakistani policy stems from multiple factors that Tehran sees as indicators.

These include massive Saudi financial assistance to help Pakistan avert a financial crisis, question marks among international oil executives of the economic rationale for the kingdom’s  plan to build a refinery in Gwadar, a plan published by a Riyadh think tank calling for the fostering of an insurgency among Iran’s Baloch minority, reports by Pakistani militants of Saudi funding for anti-Shiite and anti-Iranian Sunni Muslim militants in Balochistan, and evidence of broader segments of the Pakistani population buying into Saudi-inspired ultraconservative interpretations of Islam as a result of the kingdom’s decades-long support of religious and cultural institutions as well as media.

Iran’s province of Sistan and Balochistan hosts the Indian-backed port of Chabahar, a mere 70 kilometres up the Arabian Sea coast from Gwadar. A shadowy militant Sunni Muslim group claimed responsibility for a rare suicide bombing in Chabahar in December.

Pakistan scholar Madiha Afzal noted in a just released Brookings report that “Saudi Arabia has succeeded in changing the character of Pakistan’s religiosity in a bid to expand its influence in the Muslim world, and in its mission to counter Iran.”

While US sanctions may have, at least for now, given the death knell to the Iran-Pakistan pipeline, Saudi influence appears to have failed in stopping Pakistan from entertaining a gas deal with Qatar, another of the kingdom’s nemeses, despite an almost two-year old Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led diplomatic and economic boycott of the Gulf state.

Qatar recently lowered the price in a bid for a major Pakistani liquified natural gas (LNG) contract in an effort to outcompete Saudi Arabia, that last month sent a delegation to Islamabad to discuss the South Asian nation’s gas needs.

The competition is about more than commercial advantage. While Qatar sees its gas exports as part of its soft power strategy, Saudi Arabia views the Pakistani contract as part of an effort to establish the kingdom as a major trader and marketeer as it strives to position itself as a significant gas exporter over the next decade.

Pakistan’s ability to maintain its tightrope walk could be further endangered if it fails to convince the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watch dog, that it is doing sufficient to meet the group’s standards.

Pakistan was last year grey listed by the group and risks being blacklisted if it fails to convince FATF in talks later this month that it has substantially improved its controls. Blacklisting listing would significantly curtail its access to international finance at a time that it is seeking a bailout by the International Monetary Fund. (IMF).

Juggling multiple balls is proving to be an increasingly difficult act in which Pakistan may be the country out on a limb but many of its partners have a stake in ensuring that it maintains its tightrope walk.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Is an Anti-Government Narrative Safe in Pakistan?

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Pakistan as a state has rarely projected a revered image to the world when it comes to a lasting democracy. The governments have been a bait for the respective leaders and the military counterparts to juice the nation even further; passing the baton from one term to another in a power game between civilian and totalitarian regimes. Not even a decade has gone by to look back at the spiral of power that once vacillated between Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N). The rise to power of Imran Khan, however, was unprecedented and was duly celebrated as a speck of a possible change in the already wrecked political arena of the county; a narrative that was convincingly chanted in the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) slogans “Tabdeeli Aagai Hai”. Yet, with over thirty-months under the premiership of Imran Khan, the only observable change is the acceleration in the destruction of the country, inside out.

There was no doubt throughout the tenacious campaign of Imran Khan that he has the most decadent character amongst his political rivals. Be it his triumphant feat captaining the World-Cup winning national cricket team in 1992 or his relentless efforts to build Shaukat Khanam, the first cancer hospital of Pakistan, from ground up. Even his valour and determination culminating into a 22-year struggle to wade through the reeking political scenario of the 90’s and early 2000’s to eventually accede to power in 2018 is a commemoration in itself. However, half way through his tenure, no concrete results have showcased since the elections declared him as the 22nd Prime Minister of Pakistan.

While many of his apparent failures are subject to his over-the-top promises to his supporters; promises he failed to even materialise on paper, his brash allegations over his political rivals and guising his pitfalls as a carry-forward of their incompetency shows how his government has let down even in performing the rudimentary tenets required to lead a country. As the inflation runs rampant; crossing over to projected double figures in the following quarters of the fiscal year, and as the GDP growth plummets into the negative territory, the ruling PTI lacks the basic decency of accepting their failures head-on but on the contrary, never miss to initiate the blame game over petty issues whilst the country verges economic crisis amidst the pandemic. Ironically, however, Imran Khan continues to direct Pakistan on the very routes he once criticised the preceding leaderships over for adopting. An apt example presents in the decision of negotiating with the IMF for economic relief or receiving a $6 Billion loan from UAE and Saudi Arabia respectively, the notions once denounced by PTI as acts of selling the country or rendering the country servile to western powers.

Even the totalitarian position is not spared subtly as the Khan-led regime continues to harness any and all individuals who dare to criticise the policies of the great Imran Khan; a sardonic reality that is continually shifting towards a serious note. The recent comment of Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, Brad Adams, sheds some light on the vengeful exercise of political writ: “Pakistan’s continuing assault on political opponents and free expression puts the country on an increasingly dangerous course”.

The government operates on an apparent strategy to incorporate the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), country’s anti-corruption watchdog, under the pretence of its autonomous nature under the constitution, to prosecute and harass any and all holding an anti-government narrative. At first the rumours were wafted off as allegations over the austerity of the venerated PTI government. However, pilling reports of harassment of many famous journalists and human rights activists have surfaced, on the account of warrants of inquiry over inane matters; being held under interrogation for hours and even being threatened to tone down the criticism of state issued policies.

However, barring the criticism doesn’t hide the fact that whilst the country continues to deal with economic turmoil, unhinged violence continues to prevail against the minorities. The Ahmadi community being on the target of the extremists for decades, the even sturdy Imran Khan bowed down to the radical demands of the extremists to relinquish Mr. Atif Mian, a globally renowned economist, from his advisory position by accepting his resignation without a hint of apology or regret. The laws of Blasphemy continue to pillage multiple lives each year yet the government, hailed into power on the account of ‘change’, worsened the conditions further. Not only has the government failed to repeal or even amend the preposterous law provisions, it has failed to even proceed with just trials of the accused whilst the assailants wander freely without conviction. The Khan-led government tends to take the narrative of being the self-proclaimed defenders of the human rights in IIOJK yet fails to protect the Hazara community at the helm of genocide for decades. Even when victims like Tahir Naseem are shot dead during a trial of a supposed blasphemy case and a cold-blooded gang raped is officially insinuated as the victim’s fault for travelling late at night, it’s astounding how the state even claims to be under the arching definition of a ‘Islamic State’ and even more insulting when it is compared to “Medina Ki Riasat”.

The list goes endless but the festering reality of the country is as clear as it could be to a sane mind. Pakistan has made no progress on the economic front but has further deteriorated. Aspects of law and litigation are a rarity nowadays and free speech is a myth that once laced the breeze of an independent country. As to the ruling figure in Pakistan, the political image hinged on the “Famous cricketer and self-less philanthropist” has lasted long enough and the signs of weakness and decimation are showing. For the continually deteriorating nature of living of the country, it was well concluded in the 2021 Human Rights Watch Review, analysing Pakistan: “Threatening opposition leaders, activists and Journalists while trampling on the rights of the citizenry is a hallmark of an authoritarian rule, not a democracy”.

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Pakistan Needs to Learn from the Balochistan Havoc

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The brutal killing of ten coal miners in Mach (a town near to Quetta, Balochistan) has so much to offer to the elite class, policy makers and even their fellow citizens of Pakistan. The deceased were poor and hardworking labourers having no direct concern with the state and the terrorists still became prey of the menace of terrorism. They were sleeping peacefully after a tiring day of one of the most demanding, dangerous and underpaid job in a coal mine in Mach. They were not promoter of any specific ideology but working hard for the bread and butter of their families. They were not linked to any religious or political organization in and outside of the country. The only thing which can be related to them is that they were weak and belonged to Shiite Hazara community, a vulnerable minority in Pakistan.

Another point of notice is that the involved external hands changed their modus operandi this time. Instead of funding and fueling the separatist movements in Balcohistan to carry out such attacks, they have opted a completely different proscribed terrorist organization. Right now, Baloch separatists are unable to actively operate in the province as they are in tightened grip of Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs) of Pakistan and are involved in terrorist activities in other provinces to maintain their presence in mainstream media locally and internationally. This scenario has compelled the external involvement in the province to adopt an alternative way. Islamic State, an extremist Sunni terrorist organization, is selected this time to carry out a terrorist attack in the largest but poorest province of Pakistan. External powers have the heinous ambitions to destabilize Pakistan internally through sectarian crisis since long and they are not successful up till now due to institutional stronghold by different stakeholders of LEAs and improved inter-departmental coordination. Pakistan has not only targeted the terrorist elements in the country but their root causes are also focused like extremism, sectarianism and separatism. After all the above, the state has to include vulnerable minorities into consideration as they become an easy target of non-state actors. As minorities attract huge media attention, locally and internationally, they help pursuing terrorists’ agendas more effectively. This is also a concern related to human rights in any country.

The act of terrorism will benefit the masterminds behind the attack in two ways. First, it will help culminating Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the province by terrorizing local and foreign investors and by portraying negative image of the country on international fora. Development under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project is not a comfy sign for the opponents of China and Pakistan. It will be imaging Pakistan a dangerous country and Balochistan an unsafe place for business and investment. Second, once again creating sectarian crisis in the province where Shiite Hazara community has always remained a prime target of proscribed sectarian/ terrorist organizations. The terrorists hit the most vulnerable part where the wounds are already deep. Hazara community is being attacked continuously by the Sunni extremists who are playing in the hands of external powers.

Pakistani state is doing everything possible to protect the Hazara community living mostly in Quetta and making around half of the population of Balochistan’s largest and capital city. Mining in Pakistan remains sub-standard but such incidents are rare in the country. This makes us sure that the incident is not a simple terrorist activity but a sectarian motion where people belonging to a minority are targeted. What could have been done was to resolve the mourners’ grievances within time. The mourners spent a whole week on the road protesting the brutal killing of their loved ones amid the most chilled month of the winter season. They were approached by the representatives of provincial and federal governments, but protestors wanted assurance from Prime Minister of Pakistan before burial of the dead bodies. The negotiating delegations accepted all their demands except the resignation of the provincial government where PM’s political party is also in alliance. Later, on 6th January 2021, PM Imran Khan reassured the protestors via Twitter that culprits must be held accountable and requested them to bury the bodies. His assurance satisfied the grievers and they set off the protest.

There is a need of permanent and in place policy for the protection of the community. Pakistani state needs to work on creating inter-faith and intra-faith harmony in the country. The government must admit that confining an ethnicity within a barred city is not the solution of the issue. There is a need to take some concrete steps for a permanent resolution as Hazard community has the distinguished features which make them easily identifiable. They cannot limit themselves to a walled city. Furthermore, Hazara community of Afghanistan also comes across the border in search of livelihood which causes a threat to the national image.

Moreover, public needs to stand with the people of Hazara community in the time of havoc. During the present time, where social media plays a vital role, it is easy to support such cause. The government should focus on finding the permanent solution to the community’s issues. LEAs of the province should leave no stone unturned with dedication and commitment by helping the families of the victims and overall Hazara community. The society needs to learn from the incident before it is too late. It is the time to stand with the bereaved families of the community or else be ready for the creation of more extremists.

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Arnab Goswami’s whatsApp leaks show power of propaganda

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Image credit: shethepeople.tv

WhatsApp leaks concerning Arnab Goswami (Republc TV) have  brought into limelight some bitter truths. One bitter truth is that the general public is a `bewildered herd’ (to quote Noam Chomsky) who could easily be made a fool of. Abraham Lincoln was wrong in saying “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”

History tells that the people, even the Americans, are gullible. Propaganda deeply influenced even independent-minded Americans who laid down a constitution, beginning with words `we the people’. Chomsky says even the American masses are like a “bewildered herd” who have stopped thinking (Noam Chomsky, Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda, p.16). He asserts that, in a “properly functioning democracy”, there are a “small percentage of the people”, a “specialised class of citizens” who … analyse, execute, make decisions and run things in the political, economic, and ideological systems”. Chomsky reminds, ‘Woodrow Wilson was elected President in 1916 on the platform “Peace without Victory”, right in the middle of the World War I.  The American population was extremely pacifistic and saw no reason to become involved in a European War.  The Wilson administration established a government propaganda commission, called the Creel Committee, which succeeded, within six months, in Chomsky reminds, ‘Woodrow Wilson was elected President in 1916 on the platform “Peace without Victory”, right in the middle of the World War I.  The American population was extremely pacifistic and saw no reason to become involved in a European War.  The Wilson administration established government propaganda committee, called the Creel committee, which [through fake news, films, etc.] succeeded, within six months, in  turning a pacifist population into a hysterical, war mongering population which  wanted to destroy everything German, tear the Germans limb from limb, go to war  and save the world….  After the war the same techniques were used to whip up a hysterical Red Square…’ (op.cit.page 12).

Arnab Goswami’s Leaks

The leaked WhatsApp chats revealed that Abbottabad `surgical strikes’ were conducted to shore up Narendra Modi’s image as a `strong man’, a Brobdignagian among the Lilliputian self-centred Indian politicians. The `strike’ helped Modi win elections with a thumping majority.

Though Modi is educated only up to high school he understands the power of propaganda. He has done a three-month course in the USA on Image Management and Public Relations. His campaign blitz cost about US $ 700 million. Modi is considered the most techno-savvy leader of India as he is very active on various social media platforms including Twiter, Facebook, Instagram, etc (Wikipedia).

Shocking information in Leaks

WhatsApp chats between Republic TV Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami and former Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) CEO Partho Dasgupta that run into 500 long pages. They revealed nexus between media and politicians to hoodwink the masses. Several Congress leaders, including former Finance Minister P Chidambaram and former Chief Minister of Maharashtra Prithviraj Chavan have raised alarming questions.

Chidambaram has questioned how the journalist and his friend knew about the Balakot strikes three days before it took place.

Meanwhile, senior journalist Madhavan Narayanan, in his piece, raised pertinent questions about the clearly transparent violations of media ethics, professionalism and business malpractices, as are evident from the purported chats between the Republic TV CEO and former BARC head. In the transcripts, Arnab purportedly referred to the Pulwama attack on February 14, 2019. Three days before the Balakot air strike on February 26, 2019, Goswami purportedly wrote India’s response would be: “Bigger than a normal air strike. And on the same time something major on Kashmir (abrogation of Special Status).

Dasgupta was arrested in the fake Television Rating Point (TRP) case. The Mumbai police had earlier told the court that Goswami had allegedly bribed Dasgupta with lakhs of rupees to ramp up Republic TV’s viewership.

Army stunts

Like the Indian air force, Indian army also knows the value of propaganda. It occasionally staes fake encounters in which innocent Kashmiris are kidnapped and killed in `encounters’. Afzal guru was hanged but subsequent revelations by police officer Davinder Sing revealed that he was in fact innocent.

Impact of Modi magic

In elections, Congress lost even in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, where it ruled. Even  Rahul Gandhi lost its citadel,  Amethi. In the gory West-Bengal contest, the formidable Mamta Bannerjee lost many seats to BJP. Modi’s self-image brand prevailed. The RSS held many conclaves to reach out to intellectuals. Muslim munch, distributed RSS leaflets. Even after winning the elections, BJP stalwarts visited Madrassa Deoband. He captivated popular imagination as a strong leader _ Modi hai to mumkin  hai (If Modi is there, then it’s possible). Through power of propaganda, Modi brazenly bagged credit for all achievements of previous Congress governments. It was Jawaharlal Nehru who abolished the zamindari system. It is Nehru, not Modi, who set up space centre that catapulted India’s ASAT Shakti.

Modi 1.0’s  economic- progress figures were plain cookery.

Pulwama questions

Goswami Leaks further debilitates India’s accusation that Pulwama attack was masterminded by Pakistan. Several questions, given heretofore come to mind about India’s `charge sheet’ on Pakistan: (a) Why did India bank on the FBI when it already possessed all communications from Pakistan? For instance, it intercepted the whole talk between military dictator Yahya Khan and his coterie during the East Pakistan/Bangladesh crisis. It intercepted Musharraf’s conversation with his generals while he was flying back from China to Pakistan. India blamed. Isn’t there collusion between the FBI and India? (b) Why did India blame Pakistan even before forensic-lab and National Investigation Agency investigation report? (c) Why are there differing reports about weight of the RDX used?  The Indian Express speculated `High-grade RDX explosive, weighing about 80 kilograms, was used in the suicide attack’. The Hindu estimated 100-150 kg. (d) Why was a private vehicle allowed to approach the scene of incident in violation of the CRPF Standing Operating Procedures? The CRPF’s Standing Operating Procedure required movement of up to 100 persons in a convoy. Why has the CRPF been moving such convoys, comprising more than 2,500 personnel each, on the Srinagar-Jammu highway. In the past fortnight, two such convoys had moved from Jammu to Srinagar. The latest was on February 4, with a convoy of 91 vehicles and 2,871 personnel’. (e) Why could the convoy not spot the lonely suicide vehicle trailing behind? (f) How did the terrorists know the convoy movement was delayed by two days? (g) How did they remain undetected while loading the vehicle with explosives the whole day? (h) Not only WhatsApp but also landlines have never been accessible even in Hindu-majority Jammu (occupied Kashmir). Then how come `the FBI has told the NIA about the WhatsApp group operated by a member of the terrorist outfit Jaish-e-Mohammad who was in contact with the people who carried out the attack of Pulwama? (i) According to the FBI, a man called Mohammed Hussain was operating the WhatsApp group, from Muzaffarabad. But the number was however registered under the name of Jameela from Budgam’ (INDIA NEWS NETWORK, August 27).

Inference

Modi owes his electoral victory to the power of propaganda. He is making a fool of not only the Indian masses but also the world around. 

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