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December 21, 2017

Normalising abnormalities


December 21, 2017

This Tuesday, we saw three breakthroughs on very pivotal issues. First, the Senate passed the 24thAmendment bill on the re-demarcation of constituencies on the basis of a fresh population census – thus paving the way for holding the general elections on time.

Second, COAS Gen Bajwa tried to set civil-military relations on an even-keel by appearing before the Senate. And third, thanks to the good general’s mediation, a tentative breakthrough on Fata’s inclusion into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa seems to have been reached with Maulana Fazalur Rehman. These are good things to have happened in what are felt as most uncertain times.

There are real paradoxes, fault-lines and abnormalities that dog the democratic transition in the country; there is also the mal-functioning of the state and consequent overlapping of its institutions. The crisis triggered with the judicial ouster of an elected prime minister on what have widely been seen as flimsy grounds is being played out by various stakeholders, as the country faces multiple crises and challenges. Thanks to the accommodation shown by the PML-N and the flexibility of the PPP, the differences over the population census between Sindh and the federal government were resolved to pave the way for the passage of the 24th Amendment by the Senate to ensure timely elections of all legislative bodies, including the Upper House. The uncertainty about the Senate elections seems to have been be cleared – that is, if the PPP and the PTI do not wreck the transition by joining hands with the Qadri juggernaut to deny the PML-N the legitimate advantage of four or five Senate seats in the upcoming Senate elections in March.

It was very wise on the part of the Senate chairman and the committee of the whole house to have invited COAS Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa for a briefing on the emerging security scenarios and civil-military relations. It was also quite remarkable that Gen Bajwa tried his best to alleviate the apprehensions about security challenges and civil-military relations that were being loudly expressed in various sessions of the Upper House.

The briefing came at a time when both the geo-strategic environment and financial and political structures are under great pressures. Gen Bajwa not only tried to clarify the military leadership’s view over various strategic issues, but also quite laudably asked parliament to guide the nation on security and foreign policy challenges. While assuring the house that Pakistan will not in any way become a party to the Saudi-Iran conflict, the army chief also showed his willingness to support any effort by the government in re-starting a dialogue process with India, something that seems difficult at the moment due to the Modi government’s intransigence.

However, what remains unclear is how Pakistan is to face the greatest challenge posed by the Trump administration and its approach towards the region and the tremendous pressure that it is building on Pakistan. Simply saying ‘no more’ in response to ‘do more’ is not the answer. Hard posturing might be necessary, but that doesn’t mean that we swing in the opposite direction – in the false hope of a new cold war – which we can neither afford nor is in our national interest.

What we are trying to say to the Americans is not satisfying them. The real issue is how we wriggle out of the Afghan quagmire in a way that it doesn’t become adverse strategic depth at the same time. We also have to rethink our relationship with the Afghan Taliban. There is no choice but to force them to join the negotiation process and decline them any relief that jeopardises our security via possible retaliation under a unilateral interventionist Trump paradigm to achieve certain tactical objectives that we should be ready to deliver. The objective should be peace in Afghanistan and pre-emption of a two-front situation. The strategy should be to reduce security threats, not expand them to a self-defeating point.

For this to happen, we must redefine our ultimate national interest. If the objective is to make Pakistan an economic hub on the crossroads of Central and South Asia, then the cumbersome geo-strategic paradigms must adjust to the economic-strategic imperatives that also make our security sustainable. This requires a shift from our current hostile relationship with our neighbours, India in particular. While keeping our strategic deterrence, we should forget about asymmetry with India and let the Chinese check India’s hegemonic designs in the region. A relationship of economic interdependence will create a conducive environment for conflict resolution as Kashmir or other disputes cannot be resolved through military means or in a hostile environment.

The reversal of our erstwhile policy of using proxies should now come to a logical end with others, both India and Afghanistan, reciprocating by stopping their proxy wars against Pakistan. The countries of the region can join hands in bringing peace to Afghanistan, rather than further exaggerating the critical situation in the war-torn country by adding various proxy wars to the war theatre.

Gen Bajwa has in fact thrown the ball into the court of the public representatives – be they in the opposition or in government. He has rightly asked them not to drag the army into politics. There is also a need to address the genuine complaints of the civil society and the media about enforced disappearances. The explanation given in the meeting did not do that.

If the armed forces are institutionally satisfied with their role as originally envisaged by the letter and spirit of the constitution, then parliament must take the responsibility to put appropriate institutional arrangements and checks and balances to keep civil-military relations on a stable trajectory. Pakistan cannot afford any rift in civil-military relations, particularly at this point in our history. Unfortunately, politics has become too personalised and self-serving. The country’s politicians should now be focusing on the next elections, rather than jeopardising a much warranted smooth transition. The confusion and destabilisation caused by the successive inconsistent court judgments in high-profile political cases – and in an extremely polarised political situation – need to be addressed. Either the full Supreme Court bench should clear the confusion over its prerogative under Article 184 (3) or parliament should set it right while avoiding an institutional conflict with the judiciary.

The country’s political parties should agree on a modus operandi for the holding of free and fair elections on time as required by the constitution. This they should do while not encouraging any unscrupulous elements and sectarian extremists to derail the democratic transition or compromise the writ of the state. Let us hope that such good things continue to happen to ease our burdens.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @ImtiazAlamSAFMA

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