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.

Friday Squib: Unconventional war footing

The things that they believe in America!

Fred Gedrich, a former US government official, in the Washington Times:

Pakistan could do two things to diminish the Islamic extremist threat: develop an unconventional warfare capability and cut off the stream of jihadis coming out of madrassas.

Pakistan hasn’t been able to succeed in pacifying the lawless tribal region and elsewhere because it’s using conventional troops, weapons and tactics against enemies who don’t wear uniforms, carry weapons openly or abide by international war rules.

It needs to transition to an unconventional war footing (special military forces working with local populations and performing clandestine operations) but presently doesn’t have this capability. The United States offered to provide training, advice and support, but Pakistan’s government hasn’t fully accepted the offer yet… [WT, emphasis added]

Mr Gedrich, despite having worked for the State and Defense departments (or perhaps because of it) seems hopelessly ignorant of Pakistan’s history. The problem is not that the Pakistani army does not have unconventional warfare capacity or that it can’t do clandestine operations. The problem is that it has and did too much of it.

Inflation and the junta

The regime in Dhaka “tilts at windmills”

The dictatorships in the subcontinent have had to contend with public unrest due to the global rise in food prices. They’ve done it in characteristic style. The Burmese generals cracked down hard on protesters. The Pakistanis sent troops to warehouses and flour mills, acting rather late in the day. The Bangladeshi regime, meanwhile, is caught between going the repressive way and the costs of being bracketed with the ill-reputed juntas of the region.

Mashuqur Rahman writes that they blamed ‘a foreign body’ for stoking labour unrest, arrested Mehedi Hasan, a trade unionist, and forced him to confess. Confess what? Well, that he did his usual job of collecting information of collecting information about worker’s problems and reporting it to Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), which “represents 178 American colleges and universities who buy garments from brands with factories in countries like Bangladesh. WRC defends the rights of garment workers against abuse. Its reports hold the garment factories’ feet to the fire”.

Meanwhile food prices are rising, and calls for subsidies are becoming louder. Bangladesh’s generals know that they need international assistance in order to make food available and affordable. So it is not surprising that they decided to release Mr Hasan.

Where martial law is yet to be lifted

Bangladesh has remained under military rule for a year now

It has been a year since the Bangladeshi army staged a quiet coup, installed a regime of civilian ‘advisors’ and imposed an emergency. According to Freedom House, over the last year, Bangladesh’s “political rights rating declined…due to a military-backed replacement of the caretaker government in January and suspension of planned elections, as well as the imposition of a state of emergency under which political activity, freedom of assembly, and media freedom were curtailed”.

Photo: Flickr-Anonymous Photographer

During this one year, the military junta has attempted to gain domestic legitimacy by a very visible crackdown on political corruption. It has managed to avoid international scrutiny not only by keeping a low profile, but has gained from the fact that the world’s attention is turned towards Pakistan, Burma, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Yet military rule is unlikely to provide Bangladesh with a sound basis to address its numerous internal problems, and by extension, problems that affect India. The longer Bangladesh is under military rule, the greater the danger that problems will surface only after they have reached crisis levels.

The fact that one whole year after seizing power the generals are nowhere near announcing a timetable for a restoration of democracy proves that now is as good a time as any. We all wish we had better politicians, but the truth is that Bangladesh, like any other country, must do with the leaders and political parties it has got.

It is time for the generals to beat the retreat.

Engaging the South-Central Asian Raja-Mandala

Applying ancient Realism in the modern age

“American military assistance to Pakistan in the last 15 years will, I believe, be listed by historians as among our most costly blunders”, wrote an American diplomat who had served as ambassador to India. No, this is not Robert Blackwill writing in 2007. It was Chester Bowles writing in the New York Times in 1970.

That’s what Vanni Cappelli points out in an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle, in which he argues that the United States must contain Pakistan.

In my essay “Containing Pakistan: Engaging the Raja-Mandala in South-Central Asia” (published in the winter 2007 issue of Orbis), I argued that the United States should change course and commit itself to an American-Indian-Afghan alliance aimed at containing Pakistan and the Islamic ideological and terrorist threat that it poses under military rule. Only by joining with secular democratic and other anti-extremist forces in the region can the United States combat the violence perpetrated in the name of an “Islam in danger.”

Cutting off military and economic aid to Pakistan, formally designating it a state sponsor of terror and working with its neighbors to contain it will allow the United States to effect the same internal collapse of a dictatorial order that occurred when the Soviet Union’s weak economy proved unable to sustain its military superstructure. Rawalpindi’s possession of nuclear weapons need not deter such a policy any more than Moscow’s did the successful Cold War containment strategy.

A new alliance would cripple Pakistan’s capacity to support militants and give the country’s secular democratic forces their first real chance to transform their troubled land into one that is no longer a threat to international security. [SFGate via The Conjecturer]

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.

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.