The curious incident of elections in Pakistan

The terrorists did not even attempt big attacks

In the run-up to the elections, there were some major terrorist attacks—including suicide bombings—targeting the Pakistan People’s Party and the Awami National Party.

On the day of the elections there were none. Not that the attacks were foiled. They were not even attempted. (There was only the ‘usual’ election violence, but that’s nothing to write home about)

Rewind a few weeks: During his recent trip to Europe, General Musharraf declared that elections will be free, fair and peaceful (emphasis his).

The metaphorical dog didn’t bark.

Don’t worry, be happy (and alert)

Fears of nuclear terrorism are overblown?

Citing a presentation by John Mueller, a Ohio professor, Steve Chapman contends that the “worst” won’t happen.

Far from being plausible, (argued John Mueller), “the likelihood that a terrorist group will come up with an atomic bomb seems to be vanishingly small.” (See Mueller’s paper)

Mueller recalls that after the Irish Republican Army failed in an attempt to blow up British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, it said, “We only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.” Al Qaeda, he says, faces a very different challenge: For it to carry out a nuclear attack, everything has to go right. For us to escape, only one thing has to go wrong. That has heartening implications. If Osama bin Laden embarks on the project, he has only a minuscule chance of seeing it bear fruit. Given the formidable odds, he probably won’t bother. None of this means we should stop trying to minimize the risk by securing nuclear stockpiles, monitoring terrorist communications and improving port screening. But it offers good reason to think that in this war, it appears, the worst eventuality is one that will never happen. [Chicago Tribune]

Dr Mueller’s paper is entertainting but he and Mr Chapman are dangerously close to fallacy. That’s because while the likelihood itself may be low, the risk itself is not. The worst can still happen. And hence we must worry. How much? Now that’s a subjective and different countries would assess it differently.

Similarly, Bin Laden would not be deterred from pursuing the project merely because the chances of success are low. For a start he doesn’t even have to deliver or detonate one in the United States. He might calculate that he can go a long way merely by having one. It is dangerous to fall into the trap of believing that states (or terrorists) seek nuclear weapons only to use them. Dr Mueller’s analysis is academically expansive, but doesn’t consider the specifics of the contemporary problem: nuclear collusion between a faction of the Pakistani state and a faction of the jihadi establishment.

And then again, there is a risk—albeit with low likelihood—that al-Qaeda would try to get one across into the United States or another country.

Both overstating and understating the risks is wrong. Understating is arguably more dangerous.

Sunday Levity: What did Musharraf get in maths?

What’s something divided by zero?

General Musharraf is becoming too frequent a guest on Sunday Levity. But this one deserves mention. Responding to now routine concerns over the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, he said:

“The only way it would be endangered would be if al-Qaeda gets so strong that it defeats the Pakistan Army, or if Taleban supporters win the election, and the possibility is zero, multiplied by zero and divided by zero.” [Times Online]

We know that when he talks about being 400% sure he’s likely to be lying. But in this case he may be, ironically, telling the truth. For unless he is a student of Brahmagupta’s mathematics (circa 628 CE), he is effectively saying that the possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of al-Qaeda/Taliban is indeterminate. In other words, we just can’t say that the chances are.

Little Games

Connecting the dots in Waziristan, Afghanistan, Islamabad, Davos and London

The United States ‘offers’ to send special forces and military assistance to the Pakistani army fighting the Taliban militia in South Waziristan and other tribal areas. Politicians, pundits and even ordinary people around the world publicly express worries about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into jihadi hands.

Baitullah Mehsud, until recently the anointed leader of the Pakistan Taliban, gives an interview to Al Jazeera, stating that it was the United States that posed a threat to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, not he.

Around this time, Mullah Omar—he with only one eye—sacks Baitullah Mehsud, for attacking Pakistani forces instead focussing on the US-NATO troops on the Afghanistan side of the border.

General Musharraf is in Europe finding it hard going answering questions about his own role in Pakistan’s political crisis. Around this time, back home in Rawalpindi, General Khalid Kidwai, the most public face of Pakistan’s nuclear command, reassures the media on custodial control. And then, Pakistan announces that it has raised the state of alert over nuclear weapons.

So what’s happening?

Mullah Omar’s public signal—that Afghanistan should be the focus of the Taliban insurgency—indicates that he would rather not have US forces fighting on the Pakistan side of the border, sandwiching the insurgents. It also serves Musharraf’s interests. He can now tell the insistent Americans that their ‘help’ is less necessary now.

Baitullah Mehsud’s statement on the danger to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons sounds identical to what the Gul & Co faction of the military establishment would argue. The message is directed at the Pakistani people, but it is almost certain that the signal is also meant for external parties with an interest in the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

Here’s an hypothesis: Musharraf & Co and Mullah Omar’s Afghan Taliban have found reason to strengthen their long-standing alignment. The threat of US military intervention in Pakistan have compelled them to distance Gul & Co and the Baitullah-led Pashtuns on the Pakistani side. But this not a ‘hard’ split—for Mullah Omar & Co can’t do without help from the Pakistani side. And Baitullah Mehsud & Co can’t do without access to the lucrative drugs smuggling trade centred around Afghanistan.

That leaves us with the announcement about the raised alert levels. Why announce this publicly, at a time when General Kidwai & Co are playing down the risk of losing custodial control? Well, Musharraf probably reckons this kind of news will make European audiences more favourably disposed to his protestations of indispensability.

Kargillian blunder

A neologism and a rap sheet

The editorial board of Lahore’s Daily Times, always the one to tread softly around Musharraf—blaming his ‘advisors’ rather than the man himself—deserves honourable mention today.

Not only does the editorial contain a veritable rap sheet against the man. It has topped it with inventing a new adjective: “Kargillian”, to describe blunders of the kind Musharraf made.

Now, what would have caused the newspaper to be so brave as to rub it in so.

My op-ed in Mail Today: Pakistan’s food crisis

The food crisis might push ordinary Pakistanis over the edge

The headline writers at Mail Today were certainly creative. What was originally “Anger over atta” (based on this post) became “Pakistan could now be hit by a food bomb”, in yesterday’s edition. Some excerpts:

Frequent power cuts affected flour mills, disrupting the production of wheat flour. By end November 2007, queues started forming outside provision shops across many Pakistani cities. Political violence, after the attack on Benazir Bhutto’s Karachi rally in October and after her assassination in December made the supply situation worse. The government decided to import wheat from the international market, but prices had risen by this time. It has had to subsidise wheat in order to keep the prices low enough. But as is expected in such situations, traders and sellers have found ways to divert the subsidised wheat into the open market, where it sells at a almost double the price. The government now hopes that paramilitary troops will be able to prevent millers and traders from hoarding and ‘smuggling’.

The crisis also reveals why the Pakistani establishment is opposed to granting India most-favoured nation (MFN) trading status. Beyond the hang-up over Kashmir, freer trade with India is inimical to the interests of the feudal and business elite. The current arrangement suits them better: they have access to the Indian market through indirect routes which allows them to export goods if world prices are higher. Blocking imports works to their advantage by strengthening their stranglehold over the supply, even if ordinary Pakistanis have to suffer for it. Little wonder that a free-trade agreement with Pakistan remains elusive.

The Musharraf regime is mistaken in thinking that deploying troops around warehouses and flour mills will solve the problem. Yet that might be the best it can do. That is bad news, because a hungry population is an angry population. And anger, unfortunately, is one commodity that the Pakistan is not short of. While lawyers, civil society groups and opposition party supporters have led public protests over the last year, ordinary Pakistanis by and large, have refrained from taking to the streets. A persistent shortage of food and other essential commodities might just push ordinary Pakistanis over the edge. [Mail Today JPG PDF]

Thanks to Amit Varma for introducing me to Mail Today, a partnership between the India Today group and the UK’s Daily Mail.

Update: A great post by Fatima Shakeel over at Metroblogging Islamabad.

Musharraf’s favourite word

The First Person of Pakistan

Der Spiegel interviewed Musharraf recently. Here is the last question:

SPIEGEL: Are there any circumstances under which you could imagine resigning from your post as president?

Musharraf: Yes.

SPIEGEL: Which?

Musharraf: First of all, there is my own disposition. Following the developments of the last seven or eight months, to resign would be the easiest thing. I like playing golf, bridge and tennis, and I feel like socializing more often than is possible in my position. I like relaxing. Believe me: On the day I think the people, the majority, don’t want me any more and the day I think I have no contribution to make to this country, I will not wait a second. I will leave. [Spiegel Online emphasis added]

So it’s all up to him.

Anger over wheat flour

Pakistan’s food crisis

Since yesterday, Pakistani paramilitary forces have been assigned new duties (via Chapati Mystery). Troops from the Pakistan Rangers—generally used for various internal security duties—and the Frontier Constabulary are guarding wheat warehouses and flour mills. That’s because the government has identified hoarding and smuggling as the reason behind Pakistan’s worsening wheat supply crisis. Not only has the price of wheat flour risen—the supply shortage has led to long queues and public anger. The food crisis (and the parallel power supply crisis) is adding one more dimension to Pakistan’s growing instability.

Now, world prices of foodgrains have risen in the last several months due to a variety of reasons: from increased demand in emerging economies to poor harvests to the effect of US biofuel subsidies. But Pakistan is a wheat producing country and shouldn’t have had to face an acute shortage. So how did it get to this stage?

The proximate story of this crisis started in early last year, with the government announcing a very rosy estimate for the 2007 wheat harvest. Exports were permitted as forecasts, and early harvests, suggested domestic production would outstrip domestic demand. But when prices continued to rise, the government decided to import wheat instead. But this was insufficient to prevent the crisis from reaching this stage. So what is the government to do but point fingers at the usual suspects and deploy troops?

Let’s look at the inside story. In theory, the Pakistani government purchases wheat grains from farmers at the “support” price. In practice, it didn’t do so effectively. One complaint was that the government purchasers delayed their purchases, allowing traders and middlemen to buy it from worried farmers at a discount. They may even have cornered the supply of gunny bags preventing farmers from selling directly to the government. This racket invariably involved collusion between the feudal landowners and government officials: during the 2006 sugar crisis, Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau named Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, Asif Ali Zardari, Nawaz Sharif and Humayun Akhtar, among others, as the leading culprits.

The effective result this was that bumper harvest or not, the government’s warehouses were not as filled up as they should have been. The bouyant world price for wheat and Pakistan’s weak border controls meant that those who had purchased the grain could export it illegally.

By end November 2007, queues started forming outside stores selling wheat flour. The government decided to import wheat from the international market, but prices had risen by this time. It had to subsidise these imports in order to keep the prices low enough: but as expected in such situations, traders and sellers found ways to divert the subsidised wheat into the open market, where it would sell at a higher (“market”) price. The government now hopes that paramilitary troops will curb this behaviour. Flour millers too have been seen as profiteering from the episode. [Related articles in Business Recorder and Khaleej Times]

Clearly, the principal beneficiaries from the wheat crisis are the usual suspects—the politically connected big farmers and traders. Some analysts have speculated that the proceeds of this crisis will fund the coming election campaign. All the same, the crisis highlights the simple fact that for all the accolades former prime minister Shaukat Aziz received for managing the economy, the Musharraf regime has failed to ensure that markets are free and competitive. Pro-business it might have been, pro-market it was not.

Will importing wheat solve the problem? Not unless it is accompanied by a policy that seeks to reduce the difference between the official price and the market price. Senior Pakistani officials have complained about having to subsidise wheat—prompting commentators like Ayesha Siddiqa to ask why they should complain about this at a time when the Pakistani army is lavishing money on new gear and a spanking new headquarters.

The issue of ‘sharing’ the subsidy load among the four provinces is politically fraught, as intra-provincial divides have sharpened. Given that wheat prices are likely to remain high over the next few years, the food subsidy burden can weigh down Pakistan’s budget. Yet, doing nothing is hardly an option: for a hungry population is an angry population. And anger is one commodity that the Pakistan is not short of.

Long Live Pakistan!

India’s long-term interests therefore call for New Delhi to insist on strengthening state institutions
vis-à-vis the military establishment now, at a time when outside powers are interested in Pakistan’s stability. Even as India engages President Musharraf bilaterally, a separate multilateral process will allow it to pursue other imperatives of the stabilization process.

India’s new challenge is to steady Pakistan’s boat

Excerpts from an article in the January 2008 issue of Pragati:

Photo: Jawad Zakariya/Flickr
Photo: Jawad Zakariya

A stable, internally reconciled Pakistan is in India’s interests. Ah! Wouldn’t that mean that it will only pursue its age-old anti-India agenda with even more vigour? Not quite. Because a Pakistan that continues to pursue irredentist goals in Kashmir or indeed, seeks to foment terrorism elsewhere in India can neither be internally reconciled nor be stable. For what is its current, perhaps existential crisis, than proof of this?

A stable Pakistan does not necessarily mean a friendly Pakistan—rather, it is a necessary condition for stable India-Pakistan relations. Whether stability will lead to peace and normality depends on a number of factors. But it will provide India with the space to proceed, relatively undisturbed, on the path to its own development.

So what India really needs is not a peace process, but rather, a stabilisation process. In the short-term this would call for preventing Pakistan’s political crisis from causing it to collapse, and in the long-term ensuring that it builds a sustainable‘ business model’ for itself.

Ah! Why bother, you might ask. Isn’t it just as well, besides much easier, to just let it collapse and split into a number of smaller states? Well, even if that destination itself were desirable, the journey is likely to be so violent that any sense of schadenfreude that Indians might feel would melt away under the costs of having to deal with a crisis next door that would be several Partitions rolled into one. And the presence of nuclear weapons, facilities and scientists on the one hand and the advance of radical Islam on the other should drive home the reality that both journey and destination are not to be wished for, and certainly not to be aimed for.

Of the umpteen challenges to the stabilization process, two stand out for their immediacy: First, India must devise a new mechanism for dealing with the various power centres that hold sway in Pakistan. Second, India is now forced to plan for an entirely new threat: the risk that al Qaeda and its Pakistani constituents will seize control of deliverable nuclear weapons or their components.

India’s long-term interests therefore call for New Delhi to insist on strengthening state institutions vis-à-vis the military establishment now, at a time when outside powers are interested in Pakistan’s stability. Even as India engages President Musharraf bilaterally, a separate multilateral process will allow it to pursue other imperatives of the stabilization process.

Download the issue to read the whole thing »

Be scared, very scared

Worries over Pakistan’s crown jewels

When B Raman says what he says, it is time to start worrying.

They have succeeded in killing her. They will now step up their efforts to eliminate Musharraf. Whoever was responsible for killing her could not have done it without inside complicity. If Al Qaeda is already having sleeper cells in the GHQ, there is an equal danger that it already has sleeper cells inside Pakistan’s nuclear establishment too. [SAAG/Outlook linkthanks Swami Iyer]