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.

Give ’em Kashmir, for stability’s sake

To believe that an American tilt against India will stabilise Pakistan is to ignore the new realities

As expected, some commentators have begun suggesting that the way for the US to regain influence in Pakistan is to “tilt” towards its ‘national security’ interests by, you guessed it, rethinking Washington’s India policy. Never mind that much of the assistance that the US has transferred to the Pakistani military establishment is already doing exactly that. Even amid all the turmoil after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, the United States found it appropriate to announce the sale of F-16 fighter aircraft to Pakistan.

Now Kaveh Afrasiabi cannot be ignorant of all this. So when he calls for Washington to rethink its India policy, what he really means is that the US must take Pakistan’s side over Kashmir.

Bhutto never criticized U.S. policy that seemed to elevate India in the region, thus many in the Pakistani military elite saw her in a negative light.

Bhutto’s assassination has tipped the scales in favor of the ruling politico-military elite focused on national (security) interests. The latter’s overriding concern now is to have some breathing space domestically.

The United States needs to seriously consider recasting its India policy in favor of a more balanced approach, while steering clear of Pakistan’s domestic politics. Otherwise, the United States risks further alienation of Pakistan’s political elite. [SFGate]

Dr Afrasiabi is wrong on several counts: there is no reason to believe that appeasing the politico-military elite will stabilise Pakistan. As the American media is discovering belatedly, the crisis runs deeper. And more than rethinking its India policy, American politicians, officials and commentators would do much better not to engage in loose talk about snatching Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. That worries the politico-military establishment a lot more than Kashmir.

It is amazing how Dr Afrasiabi overlooks the costs of rethinking. Surely, he doesn’t expect such a policy change to be inexpensive to Washington?

We don’t need no indecisive slobs (2)

Cite Pakistan’s failure and draw your favourite conclusion

What’s with editors of leading Indian newspapers? After Mr Gupta, the articulate Vir Sanghvi falls into the same trap: of declaring that democracy is better than dictatorship (linkthanks Pragmatic) and then tripping up while attempting to draw other conclusions. This time about the fates of states vis-a-vis their policy towards the United States.

There were only two major Asian countries that rejected the US prescription for development and foreign policy: India and China. And look where they are today. And look at America’s client states.

Of course, Nehru made mistakes. But can anybody really deny that the principal reason why India and Pakistan, once part of the same country, have followed such divergent paths is because of the choices both countries made in the years following independence?

At first, India’s priorities may have seemed (from a middle-class perspective) wrong-headed and muddled. Pakistan’s may have seemed glamorous and instantly gratifying. But, in the long run, we ended up as the superpower. And Pakistan as the failed state. [HT]

Leave aside that India is far from being a superpower. But citing Pakistan to prove that America’s ‘client’ states in Asia have done badly for themselves is shoddy analysis. Japan and South Korea too were American ‘client’ states in the second half of the twentieth century. Look where they are today. And look at us. South Korea, mind you, was a military dictatorship—much like Pakistan—for much of that time. That, it turns out, did not prevent it from jumping from a poor country to a rich one within the span of one generation. And then look at Taiwan and the other Asian Tigers—it turns out that pro-American states have done rather well for themselves.

Just as it is wrong to blame the United States for Pakistan’s failure, it is wrong to credit Nehru with India’s relative success. Assessing Nehru’s role in India’s development requires the space of several books. But one would think it reasonable to credit several hundred million ordinary people of India for doing little things right that contributed to their country being where it is. It is also reasonable to blame a small number of people for doing big things wrong that left India much behind what it could have been.

Pakistan’s situation could arguably be used to highlight the importance of democracy. But this is not an issue in India. But Mr Sanghvi appears to use it to justify a lot of things in omnibus. Therein lies the danger of comparing India to Pakistan. Almost anything will compare favourably. The irony is that Mr Sanghvi does this in an article that starts off by saying how the whole world, include Indians themselves, don’t make this comparison anymore.

The Turks who spied for Pakistan (and the Americans who aided them)

The bottom is not only foggy. It’s leaky

The Sunday Times finds Turks in the rabbit hole. Turkish intelligence agents paid senior American officials to get hold of nuclear technology related information, and passed this on to Pakistan’s ISI (and Israel). A Pakistani embassy official’s daughter worked as a translator at the FBI, equipped with a top secret securlty clearance. In addition to the well-known case of a plane-load of Saudi citizens that were allowed to leave the United States after 9/11, comes the revelation that a senior State department official managed to get a few of these agents released and repatriated after they were caught in the dragnet.

Sibel Edmonds, a whistleblower, has implicated “one well-known senior official in the US State Department” and an unstated number of “senior Pentagon officials—including household names”.

Update: Larisa Alexandrovna, over at The Huffington Post, does what The Sunday Times stopped short of: name names; and the BRAD Blog has more details; Lukery’s blog (mirrored on The Daily Kos) is also one of the places to go on this story.

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]

Guest post: Benazir’s sacrifice changed little

In the bloody arc of history, is Ms. Bhutto’s murder truly as seismic as is being claimed?

by Primary Red

She’s been in political exile for over a decade. Her Washington influence is only of recent vintage. India has been lukewarm to her attempted return to power.

Her killing is clearly reprehensible. But it does little to change the dynamics among Pakistan’s real political powerbrokers. For them, she and her party were mere pawns and her martyrdom has changed nothing. Of the key players: the military, the ISI-jihadi nexus, Saudi Arabia, US, China, and India, the first three come out ahead. What’s new?
Continue reading “Guest post: Benazir’s sacrifice changed little”

What’s next for Pakistan

Some parties favour elections, political parties might not

Despite all the nice talk of ‘restoring democracy’ in Pakistan, the general elections of January 2008 were mostly about engineering a political outcome that would be acceptable to Gen Musharraf, tolerable to the more vocal sections of Pakistani civil society and amenable to carry out the United States’ agenda in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Benazir Bhutto, who was killed yesterday, was by far the one candidate who could meet most of these requirements: needing work only in the acceptability to Musharraf bit. Given her general popularity, the thrust of the Pakistani military establishment’s political engineering effort was to ensure that her party didn’t win so many seats as to make her too powerful vis-à-vis Musharraf. It was in this context that she issued the rather undemocratic-sounding warning: that the elections results would be unacceptable to her if her party didn’t end up on top of the results tally.

With her assassination the ‘returning Pakistan to democracy’ project is suddenly confronted with the need to throw up another candidate, satisfying the three conditions are before, but with an additional constraint imposed by the January 8th election date.

Cancelling the elections is of course an option, and the leading political parties might even favour it. Bhutto’s PPP needs to find a leader who could benefit from the potential sympathy wave, but it’s not clear if a party organised around Bhutto’s personality can find one and regroup in time. Nawaz Sharif himself might now find himself the leading opposition figure, but his party will fear that a combination of the sympathy wave for the PPP and rigging by the Musharraf regime will severely affect its electoral results. Little wonder that it announced an immediate boycott. That’s a clear signal yet that it wants the elections postponed. The party that Musharraf created, Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam), should be weighing its options: outside a few constituencies in Punjab, its provincial stronghold, it depends on rigging for seats. It stands to gain from Nawaz Sharif’s boycott, especially in Punjab. But it stands to lose from a pro-PPP sympathy wave. If its leadership prefers to err on the side of caution, the PML(Q) too would be in favour of delaying the elections.

Does this mean that elections will be postponed? Not quite. Because powerful quarters will want them to be held as scheduled. Continue reading “What’s next for Pakistan”

Benazir Bhutto Killed

The crisis deepens

Pakistani former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has been killed in a presumed suicide attack, a spokesman for the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) says. [BBC]

As the Offstumped blogger said in an SMS, “this is more macabre than (even) we comforted ourselves with”.

Update: Does the United States have a Plan B? It was clear that Benazir Bhutto’s re-entry into Pakistan was on the back of an American plan to engineer a political outcome in Pakistan. Those who assassinated her succeeded in frustrating this plan. What’s the US left with? Supporting a Musharraf 2.0 is out of question, because the people won’t have it. Supporting Nawaz Sharif is not workable either, for Musharraf won’t have him.

2. The United States signals that it wants the elections to go on as scheduled. (via Jagadish)

The evidence the CIA destroyed…

…might have incriminated Saudi and Pakistani governments in the 9/11 conspiracy

Over at The Huffington Post Gerald Posner reveals that the tapes that the CIA destroyed might have exposed the role of senior Saudi and Pakistani officials in the 9/11 attacks (linkthanks Swami Iyer). Because one of the tapes they destroyed concerned the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah. As Posner first revealed in his 2003 book, Zubaydah’s capture was followed by the deaths of four people, three Saudi princes and one Pakistani air chief, within a few days of each other and under mysterious circumstances. And Zubaydah had named these very four people.

Zubaydah is the only top al Queda operative who has secretly linked two of America’s closest allies in the war on terror — Saudi Arabia and Pakistan — to the 9/11 attacks. Why does Bush, and the CIA, continue to protect the Saudi Royal family and the Pakistani military, from the implications of Zubaydah’s confessions? It is, or course, because the Bush administration desperately needs Pakistani and Saudi help, not only to keep Afghanistan from spinning completely out of control, but also as counterweights to the growing power of Iran. The Sunni governments in Riyadh and Islamabad have as much to fear from a resurgent Iran as does the Bush administration. But does this mean that leads about the origins of 9/11 should not be aggressively pursued? Of course not. But this is precisely what the Bush administration is doing. And now the cover-up is enhanced by the CIA’s destruction of Zubaydah’s interrogation tapes.

The American public deserves no less than the complete truth about 9/11. And those CIA officials now complicit in hiding the truth by destroying key evidence should be held responsible. [The Huffington Post]