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Dialogue with TTP: lopsided rationale

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Pakistan flew in tribal elders, Ulema, officials and stakeholders to ‘convince’ the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to reconcile for peace in Kabul this summer, under the supervision of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA), specifically the ‘Haqqani’ Group. The talks, commenced in October 2021, stand stalled as TTP apparently is unwilling to budge from its core demand of reversal of erstwhile FATA’s merger with Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. Requiring a constitutional amendment, such reversal is not happening. There are also reported objections by Pakistani interlocutors over TTP’s insistence to remain armed back home, consequent to a peace deal.

During the latest push to take the peace talks forward, a second Pakistani tribal delegation arrived in Kabul on 30 July 2022, following an Ulema delegation earlier, led by Mufti Taqi Usmani. Ulema also pressed TTP to lay down arms and return to Pakistan. The agreed ceasefire holds on paper at least, and Pakistan did release some TTP prisoners.

On June 22 this year, the Parliamentary Committee on National Security (PCNS) was briefed by Military leadership during a closed-door session in the PM House. The over-arching rationale for talks with the terrorists’ outfit touted by the government was/is “the fear of TTP fighters joining ISIS/Da’esh”. This is as flimsy a rationale as it can get.

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TTP touches a raw nerve. The memories of the APS Peshawar attack, killing innocent kids only because they studied in an Army school, are still fresh. The beheadings of countless soldiers and security personal all along, the kidnappings for ransom, the nihilist bombing of mosques even, still disturbingly flash back. The terrorist outfit does not respect Pakistan’s Constitution/laws, and strives for a state within a state. TTP’s continued reign of terror against security forces continues, whenever the lure of fake peace, lowers our guard.

So, as mentioned in earlier writings, it is not a sincere desire for peace that drives the TTP calculus. Pakistan’s stern warnings to the IEA of shutting down TTP safe havens inside Afghan territory; airstrikes on TTP’s hideouts on 16 April 2021; and IEA’s ‘impatient keenness’ to get rid of this legacy issue to regain sovereign control of the entire Afghanistan are the real drivers behind IEA/TTP peace overtures. Pakistan in December 2021 unsuccessfully targeted a senior Taliban leader, Faqir Mohammad, through a reported drone strike in Afghanistan’s eastern Kunar province. TTP’s re-entry this week into Peochar Valley, Swat was perhaps a ‘recce in force’ aimed at gleaning the security ‘pulse’.

TTP also realises that the Afghan swamp will eventually dry up for them, as continued usage of Afghan safe-havens upsets an ‘indispensable’ Pakistan, something that the IEA cannot afford. And like all insurgencies, TTP’s ‘exhaustion point’ (culminating point in military parlance) neared due to fatigue, casualties, falling recruitment and unfavourable politico-military environment may be reached sooner than later.

IEA crackdown on TTP is a divisive issue within Afghans for various reasons like IEA still finding its footing, presence of ISIS, and embarrassment the IEA faces over the US drone killing al-Zawahiri, etc. Moreover, reportedly the Qandahari component of IEA does not look eye to eye to Haqqanis’ protégé — the TTP. TTP and Haqqanis remained aligned during Jihad against the US/NATO.

So, Kabul/Islamabad’s fears that an estranged TTP/its splinter groups could swell ISIS ranks are misplaced for varied reasons. One; irrespective of the outcome of peace talks, die-hard TTP cadre has and will elope with Da’esh. Life without violence is meaningless for such nihilist elements. Two; in that eventuality, having pacified the ‘reconcilable elements’ within TTP, it would be operationally helpful for IEA to concentrate on ISIS alone, rather than looking over its shoulders towards an unpredictable TTP cadre. Three; ISIS threat is overblown and manageable for a combined IEA-Pakistan (indirect) Military enterprise. Four; ISIS plus or minus the TTP hardliners will have to be dealt with by both countries irrespective, now or in near future. And lastly, defeating and eliminating TTP from the Afghan soil will enhance IEA standing, regionally and internationally, paving the way for its ultimate recognition and economic salvation.

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Pakistani Military/veterans and important national stakeholders are also not supportive in entirety of blank amnesty to TTP. Hard-nosed negotiations evoking riwaj (traditions), tribal laws and sharia, as necessary, need to drive the process. The ‘state’ concedes but only after the ‘citizens’ accept state sovereignty, lay down their arms, apologise and guarantee good conduct in future. In doing so, as mentioned previously, the ‘black elements’ with heinous crimes are dealt with/eliminated, using the stipulated process. If history is any guide, it was not too far in the past, when the British Army, using native troops, would exact revenge and reparations in the same mountains, whenever the Empire’s rights were infringed upon. Holding nerve is name of the game.

Due to differences among political parties for the anticipated outcomes, parliamentary oversight committee constituted will ensure sidelining of any unconstitutional or illegal TTP demands. Military should drive and spearhead the process, but its ultimate ownership must squarely rest with the Government of Pakistan.

As a way forward in ‘fighting and talking mode’ that the TTP seem to prefer, Pakistan in collaboration with/acquiescence of IEA, should continue to target TTP cis/trans-frontier. According to Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies (PICSS), in 153 militant attacks, causing 293 deaths during first six months of 2022, most were attributed to TTP. A TTP armed with sophisticated weaponry left behind by withdrawing US/defeated ANA troops needs to be confronted forcefully, as any other outcome will embolden segments within the IEA to realise their grand designs, if any, for the region.

Afghan Taliban’s ascent to power and continued support enhances Pakistan a ‘positive leverage’ with IEA. Hopefully there would be little need for Pakistan’s ‘coercive leverage’ like the April airstrikes. Domestically, shunning complacency, TTP’s Swat-like incursions must be eliminated with full force. In a pragmatic policy calibration, Pakistan should take IEA on board for neutralising TTP. One hopes the August 7 killing of TTP leaders including Omar Khalid Khorasani inside Afghanistan’s Paktika province had some harmonisation.

Politically, Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, the IEA spiritual leader, be persuaded to decree against TTP renegades who target a Muslim Pakistan, misuse Afghan soil/hospitality and violate IEA commitment to the World.

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Coup from within should to be our ‘Main Effort’ now.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 11th, 2022.

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Opinion

Have a heart; have a truce!

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United Nations Secretary General António Guterres came to Pakistan to see with his own eyes the devastation of floods. After seeing the scale of flood waters, he was shocked. “I have seen many humanitarian disasters in the world, but I have never seen climate carnage on this scale. I have simply no words to describe what I have seen today: a flooded area that is three times the total area of my own country, Portugal,” he remarked. The same day, the Army Chief after visiting flood affected areas called for long term measures to prevent and survive future floods due to climate change.

Still on the same day, former PM Imran Khan addressing thousands in a rally in Gujranwala lambasted “imported government”, “neutrals”, and the election commission for not listening to the public and told the audience to wait for his call for protests and long march coming soon. The government is also not being seen as putting all priorities for the flood relief work. Where at least government leaders have tried to visit flood affected areas, I am not seeing it on top of their agenda. Deteriorating economic crisis has taken their most attention and remaining time is being consumed by ever increasing threat of a PTI onslaught on Islamabad. Instead of focusing on flood relief work, government officials are seen criticising opposition for hours on national media.

After hurricane Katrina, I was deployed for public health activities to New Orleans which was devastated by floods. Hurricane Katrina was one of the biggest natural calamities which the US has faced in recent history. More than 1,500 lives were lost, and billions of dollars of property was damaged. As it was major news on all US TV channels, I was watching all the devastation and had built a picture in my mind. But once I arrived in New Orleans which was still an abandoned city, I realised how wrong I was about the scale of devastation. Though water had receded, destruction was still there all around me. I remember standing close to a spot where one of the levees was breached and just looked around. For miles I could see no one but destruction. Even though I expected to see the damage, TV screens were not able to convey the scale which only a human eye could absorb. I was dumbfounded for some time. I saw someone’s picture close to a destroyed house, not knowing if she survived or not; I picked the picture and put it back on the front of that house.

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Our job was to inspect houses and see if they are free of medical hazards including dangerous funguses so that the population could start coming back. That allowed me to travel in a vast area and see the damage caused by waters. I still remember seeing big fishes two meters above the ground plastered on walls due to ferocity of water waves. Helicopters and small planes hanging on trees and houses moved hundreds of meters from their original place. There I realised that unless you come to a disaster area you can’t even imagine the scale of an issue. Same feeling I experienced in Pakistan’s historic floods of 2010.

Our floods in 2022 are no small matter. NASA has released a picture taken from space showing a new lake which is hundreds of kilometers wide formed in Sindh. One hundred and forty thousand women have to give birth in this month in flood affected populations. Dengue is on the upswing and reports of deaths due to gastroenteritis have already started coming.

Warring armies have made truce for Christmas, Eid or even polio vaccinations. Why could not the patriotic politicians of Pakistan (both government and opposition) have truce for a few months for the sake of very same population which they claim to serve or like to serve in future? If they still think that at this moment Pakistan should have some other priorities, then my advice to them is to just visit some flood affected areas and maybe stay there for just one night with the displaced population. I am sure they will change their mind. Please have a heart and have a truce!

Published in The Express Tribune, September 24th, 2022.

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Opinion

Acquisition of emerging technologies by India

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Like the Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system, India’s Defense Research and Development Organization has also been working on the speed technologies to achieve the required penetrability for striking targets quickly.

Having already developed BrahMos supersonic cruise missile in collaboration with Russia in June 2001, India has now been working on the development of its ranges, speed, lethality, stealth and penetrability. With a range of 350km, the missile can be launched from land, air and sea. It is reported to be the world’s fastest cruise missile with a speed three times greater than the speed of sound.

It is reported that India has also successfully produced BrahMos-II having a speed five times greater than the speed of sound and is termed hypersonic missile with maneuverability. It is also reported that India could increase its ranges to 1000km. Having claimed that BrahMos-II is designed and built indigenously, India has entered the club of countries such as the US, Russia, and China that possess hypersonic missile capability.

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The development of such missiles may have the following implications: it may provide offensive capability to India with confidence and incentive to strike first; it potentially tempts escalation dominance and power projection; and it is feared to increase the arms race and crisis instability among the South Asian nuclear rivals.

It is imperative to note that due to short geographical distances or border contiguity, any response time intercepting the incoming missile with hypersonic speed will be extremely difficult for either side despite the deployment of defense systems. It is believed that hypersonic missile with greater ranges and speed could defeat the deployed defense systems, thereby endangering the strategic stability between the rivals possessing nuclear weapons.

India’s recent “misfiring” of supersonic missile across the border into Pakistan is largely perceived to test Pakistan’s resolve and capacity to intercept the incoming supersonic missile. However, it is uncertain how Pakistan will respond differently if India fires such types of missiles carrying warheads with maligned intention. Presumably, India may be able to hit its targets, but Pakistan could surely come up with retaliation with similar speed and lethality. This in turn could endanger escalation to a serious military crisis.

It is difficult to ascertain how nuclear rivals could make sure the utility of hypersonic missile in the nuclear dynamics. Arguably, any emerging technologies, including hypersonic missile, provide confidence to the possessor to strike first. Therefore, under the rational logic of security dilemma, the acquisition of hypersonic technology could potentially destabilise the broader strategic stability particularly when the possessors get into an illusion to gain quick victories through hypersonic missile while presuming to eliminate the targets quickly.

Leading scholars argue that such emerging technologies tempt rivals for counterforce targeting strategies i.e. targeting the military installation, warheads and delivery systems of the potential adversaries before they could be used. Yet, many others would argue that effective countermeasures could neutralise such efforts against the use of such technologies in the presence of credible nuclear weapons that could potentially become destabilising particularly when the potential adversary has the temptation to go for preemptive strikes. For example, Professor Robert Jervis argues that the implications of nuclear revolution could be “many and far-reaching” i.e. crises will be rare, war should not occur, and the status quo relatively easy to sustain.

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Many countries possessing newer technologies presumably have got offensive in hope of quick victories but failed to do so since all such dangerous confidence in possession of such technologies ended up in serious and protracted military crises. That being noted, it remains uncertain how these technologies and counter-technologies in South Asia would end up entangling South Asian rivals for protracted military crises spiraling out of control.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 24th, 2022.

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Opinion

Myths around BRI

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Contrary to the capitalist ideologues’ diffusion that projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are driven by China’s grand vision to expand its global footprint and influence on the governments of other countries, they meet critical development requirements of the partner nations and help foster their economic growth and alleviate poverty.

The BRI projects have gained applause for their speedy implementation and low cost as well as inclusion of states both from developing and developed world. Chinese effort to put up a broader multipolar international governance system and cooperation in infrastructure development is stoking fears within the US that the world’s sole superpower may soon be losing its grip on global affairs.

Beijing’s win-win strategy challenges the Washington-led neocolonial world order which, for decades, ensnared the developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America in the western debt trap through neoliberal economic policies. In order to blunt China’s and salvage America’s image, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken during his trip to Africa accused China of overburdening the countries with “crushing debts”.

Yet revelations from the UK-based campaigner Debt Justice — that Africans governments owe three times more debt to western banks, asset managers and oil trade than China and are charged double the interest — debunks the narrative being pushed by the US directly or through the parasitic states G7, competing each other for influence in Africa to suck the resources of the impoverished Africans.

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Demystifying the puzzle that African countries are heavily indebted to China, Tim Jones, Head of Policy at international debt charity, called it a “distraction”. He criticised the western governments for their failure to “compel” the companies to suspend debt repayments even during the pandemic as did China during the G20 debt suspension scheme.

In fact, whenever African governments found themselves in the lurch and looked toward China for relief, they weren’t disappointed. A study by the China Africa Research Initiative (CARI) at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies estimated that Beijing had played an important role in helping African countries to manage their debt by forgiving at least $3.4 billion of debt in Africa and restructuring or refinancing another $15 billion between 2000 and 2019.

More recently, China announced cancelling 23 matured interest-free loans of 17 African countries in addition to providing emergency food assistance this year to the least-developed regional nations. The affirmative action urged many economists and researchers to reject the US narrative about Beijing’s “debt trap diplomacy” or alleged Chinese attempts to gain political control, seize strategic assets and exercise influence over the African governments.

Some western observers assign the blame of Sri Lanka’s default to China, the country’s largest foreign funding source is in sovereign bonds or market borrowings, which contributes to almost 50% of its debt stock. Linking the country’s inability to pay for crucial imports with Chinese “debt trap diplomacy” are categorically rebuffed as Beijing accounts for just 10-20% of Colombo’s debt compared to a plurality of western allies or financial institutions, which are considered as the US strategic asset or where America has a veto power.

As Sri Lanka went into dire straits purely over internal issues, the western media used the debt crisis as a wild card to delegitimise the BRI and China’s international image. It accused the project of being an “essential tool” for China to export more goods and win construction contracts. After Colombo defaulted on foreign debt, China’s initiative and the Chinese-built port in Hambantota was attributed for the country’s nonpayment.

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Ever since the port became an iconic case to misrepresent China’s global infrastructure lending rather than Sri Lanka’s push to build a regional growth hub in Hambantota — an underdeveloped region devastated by the 2004 tsunami — CARI Director Deborah Brautigam denied it was a part of Chinese “master plan”. Indeed, several international companies had offered to develop the port before Beijing and Colombo in July 2017 signed an agreement of $1.5 billion to lease the deep-sea port to China Merchants Holdings Ports for 99 years.

CPEC, which is BRI’s pilot project, is one of the persistent targets of the US-led “debt-trap” campaign against BRI. Beijing’s promises to develop Gwadar port city are precisely impugned even though China has undertaken several projects to uplift the living standards of the local people under Corporate Social Responsibility.

Over the last seven year, Beijing has granted more than 5 billion yuan for establishment of New Gwadar International Airport with the longest runway in the region and capable of handling the largest aircraft, East Bay Expressway, 300-bed China-Pakistan Friendship Hospital, China-Pakistan Vocational and Technical Training Institute, China-Pakistan Gwadar Faqeer Middle School, China-Pakistan Fraternity Emergency Centre and a desalination plant.

China has recently provided 3,000 solar panels to the poorest of the poor in Gwadar for provision of electricity. The Gwadar Free Zone Phase-II and 300MW power plant projects are also underway. Patience, nevertheless, is the key as all these initiatives will pay back after a period of 15 years.

Again, Beijing has no role in Islamabad’s debt crisis. According to the World Bank, rising global commodity prices led to double-digit inflation in the country with longstanding structural weaknesses of the economy and low productivity growth posing risks to a sustained recovery. The Bank, however, projects the public debt as a share of GDP will come down gradually over the medium term as Islamabad manages to repay its loans to foreign creditors.

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At a time when UNDP estimates that 71 million people in the developing world have fallen into poverty in the three months starting March due to the war on Ukraine as a consequence of spikes in global food and energy prices — an impact much more powerful than Covid — the US should be encouraged to bolster efforts and assist the embattled government for providing relief to the poor rather than drawing links between freedom and prosperity to tempt China’s allies toward the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment.

Even though the US condemnation of every single Chinese initiative has become commonplace these days, China’s blueprint of international peace and development is catching an unreserved support from the world. The message is clear: no matter how the US portrays the BRI projects internationally — and notwithstanding the western prevarication to accept the wholesome advantages of the initiative — both the international luster of the BRI and a deep global mistrust in the US-led nest of intrigue seems to be growing.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 24th, 2022.

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