Tweaking the system

UP, down, up, down, round and round the merry-go-round — on and on it grinds. At least once upon a time, the problem was known and the solution apparent.

This time, whatever this is and wherever it ends, it’s already obvious some things will need to be changed around. The system will have to be rejigged a bit.

But where? And how?

When it was the troika, 58(2)b had to be got rid of — simple. It was eventually got rid of and a problem was solved: the civilian presidency ceased to be a source of constitutional instability.

Sure, the preferred method for removing a PM has moved on to 62/63, but that’s a different kind of problem: 58(2)b got rid of entire parliaments and forced fresh elections; 62/63 sends home one chap.

It matters more when that chap is Nawaz, the actual source of power in his eponymously named party, than a Gilani or Raja Pervez, selected for the job by a party boss, but it’s still a different problem.

And maybe not a problem rooted in direct constitutional imbalances.

The system will have to be rejigged if it is to deliver anything more than bare continuity, if that.

If the civilians fix the honest and trustworthy stuff, adjust 62(1)f and clean up a bunch of the other clauses, that would still leave a trial-court conviction as an ouster route — like what Nawaz is likely facing in the NAB court.

To block that route, the PM would have to get immunity from prosecution while in office, along the lines of what the president has, but that would be massively controversial and an endless rabbit hole.

History suggests that when the system wants its man, the system gets its man.

The cost to the democratic system of granting sweeping immunity to the PM could be higher than the cost of losing a PM every little while in an era of continuity.

But there are also over-corrections that can be found in attempting to fix the problems of the past; over-corrections that now are threatening to create massive distortions of their own. And some may be easier to fix than others.

Take this business of a crusading court.

Right at the top, a balance of sorts was originally struck: mandatory retirement versus job security. If you’re a politician, you’re terrified of a judge for life — imagine what he could do at the very top if he never has to go home.

Recent examples are sufficient to gauge the disruptive possibilities.

But if you’re a judge, the last thing you want is a politician who controls your fate. So a system of automatic elevation to the top job was enforced: the senior-most justice becomes CJP.

The balance between mandatory retirement and automatic elevation creates enough regular turnover to, theoretically, help mitigate the disruption that any given judge can cause.

But that balance, never very reliable to begin with, is significantly out of whack now.

And what, really, can be done?

The card the politicians had has already been played once. It makes sense to give parliament a role in the appointment of superior court judges. They tried it in the 18th and it was a fairly reasonable effort:

Loosen the dominance of the CJP in the appointment process and give a joint parliamentary committee a role in the selection.

But while a reasonable effort, the timing was wrong and the consequences disastrous. Iftikhar Chaudhry was presiding in Courtroom No 1 and he, slayer of Musharraf, wasn’t going to let a few politicians reduce his power.

The new judges appointment process in the 18th was thundered against and parliament bullied into transferring to the CJP virtually all power in the superior judiciary appointment process.

It was a disaster because to overrule parliament, the court had to suggest it believed it has the power to judge the constitutionality of constitutional amendments — effectively, a judicial veto.

That belief was eventually and spectacularly confirmed with military courts and the 21st Amendment. So even if the politicians try again to shape the future of the court by amending the appointment process, they probably won’t get very far.

The other route, reducing the court’s powers, is also now a non-starter. Stripping the court of its suo motu powers or attempting to constitutionally narrow its scope could quickly be struck down by the court.

So, make it easier for the Supreme Judicial Council to act? That would be playing with fire. Create a constitutional court? That’s the nuclear option — and could draw a nuclear response.

At least once upon a time, the problem was known and the solution apparent.

Now it’ll probably require a bunch of small tweaks across the board.

The Senate? Ugly as the chairman vote was, it’s not a pivotal post. The bigger problem apparent is in the election of the senators themselves. So maybe it’s time to switch to direct elections or ditch the secret ballot.

This recurring nightmare with the PM? Maybe it’s time to go back to term limits and switch parliament to a four-year term. A maximum of two terms and the Nawaz problem of sticking around forever would disappear.

And if a four-year parliamentary term, by last July, the country would have been heading into a general election instead of a fifth parliamentary year and agonising uncertainty.

The system will have to be rejigged if it is to deliver anything more than bare continuity, if that.

So as the up, down, up, down, round and round the merry-go-round goes on, it could be time to think about the things that may have to be changed around.

And how.

Happy Easter.

A damp squib

THE much-touted international confe­rence on Afghanistan hosted by Uzbekistan has turned out to be a damp squib, yielding no breakthrough. In every practical sense, the 24-point Tashkent Declaration looks like a flight of fantasy.

In the build-up to the event, testy ex­­changes over support for the Taliban insurgency created bad blood between the US and Russia. The top American commander in Afghanistan accused Moscow of arming the Taliban. Gen John Nicholson chided Moscow for propping up the insurgency by supplying weapons to the Taliban. However, he offered little evidence in support of his claim.

The accusation also fuelled fury among the militants, who frequently assert their fighting prowess, independence and commitment to upholding Afghanistan’s sovereignty. That is why they cling to their demand for withdrawal of all foreign troops. Meanwhile, in an incensed response, the Russian embassy in Kabul said, “Once again, we insist such statements are absolutely baseless.”

The Taliban are not ready for direct talks with Kabul.

The atmosphere was highly charged by the time representatives from Russia, the US, Britain, China, India, Pakistan, the European Union, Turkey and the five Central Asian states arrived in Tashkent. A conspicuous no-show was the UN secretary general.

Issued at the end of the conference was a banal declaration calling for peace talks without preconditions, a political settlement, close regional counterterrorism and counter-narcotics cooperation and economic connectivity. The emphasis on respect for Afghanistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is welcome, but some countries in attendance are brashly meddling in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. Posing as friends and mentors of the Afghans, they are in effect no better than tormentors. They have been trying for years to influence Kabul’s foreign policy and decisions on key issues, including negotiations with the armed opposition.

Peace and security in Afghanistan are undoubtedly central to regional prosperity. But what is more essential is to put an end to a conflict which is universally seen as unwinnable, as well as to the suffering of the Afghans. Rhetorical flourishes and high-sounding ideas are aplenty at such meetings, where brand new international and regional initiatives are unveiled to promote Afghan reconciliation. These grand plans have never been translated into concrete action.

The Central Asian states have lately launched efforts to advance peace and socioeconomic development in Afghanistan. Seeking a greater say on regional issues, they cannot easily achieve their objectives, much less challenge the geostrategic ambitions of Washington and Moscow. In the given circumstances, a negotiated settlement with the Taliban and their inclusion in the government as a legitimate political entity appears to be the best way of tamping down the ongoing violence in the country.

Sustained parleys are an absolute imperative to ensure the renunciation of violence by the Taliban and convince them to sever ties with Al Qaeda and other transnational terrorist networks. Simultaneously, the largest Afghan insurgent outfit is required to show courage in embracing peace — a long journey that should begin with a positive response to President Ashraf Ghani’s unprecedented offer.

Unfortunately, however, some elements within the national unity government, as well as hawks in the Trump administration, are implacably averse to the offer. In recent years, we have seen many false starts in Doha, Oslo, Moscow, Beijing and Murree. A number of regional and global formats came into being, but all these efforts fell by the wayside due to calculated US manoeuvres to keep the pot boiling in Afghanistan.

Almost for a week now, senior guerrilla leaders have been weighing the pros and cons of the proposal on the table. Their political bureau in Doha is reportedly prodding insurgent commanders to lend their weight to Ghani’s proposal. With all sides talking about talks, key stakeholders are confronted with an agonising dilemma: the Taliban are not yet ready for direct negotiations with Kabul, and Washington remains reluctant to launch face-to-face exploratory meetings with the insurgents.

Now is the time to turn the page in Afghanistan, whose leader is acutely aware of the fact that making peace needs more courage than fighting. Dialogue, engagement, compromise and reconciliation are goals that cannot be achieved without a strong political will.

Often characterised as conjoined twins, Pakistan would be well advised to play a proactive role in stabilising Afghanistan. Afghan and Pakistani religious scholars are to attend a trilateral conference in Indonesia. The three Muslim nations can nudge the Taliban to the negotiating table. The rebel group’s rejection of the invitation from Jakarta — engaged in a sort of Islamic diplomacy — to attend the meeting is bad news.

Indiscretions or misreporting?

DISCRETION, it is said, is the better part of valour. But key figures in the land of the pure have not heeded this wise counsel or at least act as if they have not.

And the result: a bizarre week filled with clarifications, denials and, even, remorse by some of the most important people, all men in this case, who preside over our destinies and dictate the future of the country and its nearly 200 million inhabitants.

As the main arbiters of our destiny play power games apparently aimed at securing a greater say for their institution in the affairs of the state, we, the people, feel as would passengers in a rudderless ship.

It was a bizarre week filled with clarifications, denials and even remorse by some of the most important people in the land.

Let’s start with the judicially deposed prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who, some seven years on, has finally come round to the point of view expressed by the visionary Asma Jahangir when she said that the so-called Memogate case would come back to haunt civilian governments in the years to come.

Asma Jahangir’s words were spoken outside the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 2011 when Mr Sharif had petitioned the apex judicial forum after the Memogate scandal had marred civil-military relations.

Nawaz Sharif’s move had been seen as an act that would tilt the balance in the military’s favour in its tussle with the then PPP government. The PPP-led administration and presidency seemed very precariously perched for several weeks, before surviving the crisis and going on to complete their term.

Earlier this week, some seven years after having undermined another civilian government, Mr Sharif told journalists in Islamabad after appearing before an accountability court where he is being tried that he was wrong to take the Memogate issue to the Supreme Court.

One wonders if Nawaz Sharif would have reached the same conclusion had he not faced his current predicament, where having been ousted from office, he is facing a barrage of charges and may end up in prison for what he believes was his quest for civilian supremacy.

Where it took Mr Sharif seven years to have second thoughts, army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa took a mere 16 days to ask his spokesman Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor, DG ISPR, to clarify remarks at his supposed off-the-record briefing which was fairly widely reported.

The remarks, which the media said constituted the so-called Bajwa doctrine, had covered in a broad sweep national politics, the judicial action targeting the disqualified prime minister, the state of the economy and, yes, the 18th Constitutional Amendment among other issues.

Gen Bajwa’s off-the-record briefing which happened in the first 10 days of the month continued to be discussed in TV programmes, remained the subject of op-ed columns and also leaders in newspapers.

Some of the TV anchors appeared breathlessly excited at the prospect of the ‘Bajwa doctrine’ tightening its stranglehold over the country and state institutions but when a journalist, known for his commitment to civilian supremacy, did not sound too different many observers were left wondering if a possible tongue-in-cheek piece by him had been utterly misinterpreted.

Of course many op-ed articles and newspapers leaders sounded the opposite and raised the question of the chief’s constitutional authority to address some of the issues he seemed to have in his briefing to a select group of journalists.

Slowly but surely, the chief’s remarks started to come in for some stick. Therefore, it was not surprising that the DG ISPR chose to lay the blame for ‘misreporting ’and ‘out of context’ reporting squarely at the door of the journalists/anchors who, he said, shouldn’t have reported on an off-the-record briefing.

The Bajwa doctrine, the DG ISPR, told us has nothing to do with politics, the economy or even the 18th Amendment. In fact, it solely represented the military chief’s desire to see stability, peace, and law and order return to Pakistan, marking an end to terrorism that held sway for several years.

Anyway, when the chief explains his remarks in the Islamic Republic nobody raises questions like why it took him over two weeks to clarify matters after the reporting or misreporting had started to emerge.

Whatever the Pakistani media’s shortcomings, one must acknowledge that many sections of it (in sharp contrast to the ecstatic anchors, one of whom was subsequently banned for lying by the apex court for three months) questioned the chief and the wisdom of his remarks.

Whether the chief’s remarks were made to test the waters or there was gross misreporting one cannot say but full marks to him and his media team for realising that the reaction was negative as he appeared to be transgressing his constitutionally defined role.

Where past or present key players of two key institutions made headlines by airing their thoughts, clarifying them later, with one even expressing remorse, the office of the third issued a strongly worded denial about calling the prime minister a ‘faryadi’ (supplicant).

Chief Justice Saqib Nisar’s remarks were reported from his courtroom where he is supposed to have made them in response to a question raised about his meeting with the prime minister by lawyer Latif Khosa who was appearing before him in a case.

Later, at a public gathering, when a journalist asked him if it was appropriate for him to have used such a word (faryadi) to describe the elected chief executive of the country, he flatly denied having used it.

This was followed by a tersely worded Supreme Court statement saying the attribution of the word to the chief justice was completely wrong and malicious and that he held the prime minister in high esteem.

Given the quality of reporting these esteemed personages say they have cause to complain about, one hopes they will be more cautious what they say before anchors and journalists when they talk in their presence next.

A university self-destructs

MUCH has been said about the corruption of Pakistan’s politicians, generals, and judges. But large numbers of PhD professors (and the ranks below) are now out to give them stiff competition. While some still care for academic values — i.e., knowing their subjects properly and teaching them well — for many only the holy triad matters: pay, perks, and promotions.

Rampaging protesters brought Quaid-i-Azam University, Pakistan’s purportedly premier university, to a virtual standstill for nearly four weeks. A mob laid siege to the administration building, attempted to manhandle the vice chancellor (VC) near his office, and disrupted the few classes then still being held. They prevented buses from collecting and dropping students, ignoring pleas from fee-paying students that classes be permitted.

These were not just rowdy students. In fact, the protesters have PhDs (many from QAU itself) and are highly paid teachers. They arrive for ‘work’ in fancy cars, negating the time-honoured notion of the hopelessly underpaid, studiously engaged, fuddy-duddy professor with no time for anything other than his books. For nearly a month, these teachers have picnicked at public expense and that of their students, and are still vowing to keep their ‘struggle’ going until victory. Fortunately, they will actually have to struggle because dozens of other QAU teachers have refused to join the strikers.

Greed-propelled professors must be stopped from wrecking Quaid-i-Azam University.

But what exactly are the protesters protesting? A ‘white paper’ issued by the Academic Staff Association declares that it has a single point agenda — the removal of the VC. Indeed, it is almost time for him to leave — he has only a few months of tenure left anyway. But curious readers must ask why this unseemly rush.

Measured on a Pakistani scale, the white paper’s accusations are fairly bland. The VC is deemed incompetent, accused of lacking financial integrity and leadership acumen, etc. Unaware that they contradict themselves, the accusers say the VC has not taken “ownership of the university” but in the next breath complain he interferes in everything.

The VC’s written rebuttal to these charges may or may not convince. But one fact glares out — the striking teachers do not demand a change in the university’s increasing bleak academic environment. Over the last 30-40 years the only thing that the ASA has done is to make every possible demand for enhancing the personal wealth and power of teachers.

Past demands have included the outrageous proposition that the university’s land be gifted to teachers as their private property. The current ASA bitterly resists attempts to have professionals in the university’s administration, insisting that key administrative positions be reserved for teachers.

At a collective level, the ASA has made no proposal for improving QAU’s pathetic teaching standards, ending the widely practised system of rote learning, or any other academic cause. Meanwhile, the new four-year BS programme stands abandoned because professors refuse to teach those classes, leaving this task for poorly paid visiting teachers. On violations of academic integrity by university teachers, the protesters are mum. And yet, well known across the campus, are countless examples of appalling behaviour:

Take department W where an influential professor of that very department manipulated things to get his son and student appointed as junior faculty. Ninety PhDs, some from good universities in Europe and elsewhere, had applied and 18 were shortlisted. But it turned out that advertising the position had been a mere formality; the outcome had long been pre-decided.

Or take department X. A different ethnicity means you cannot get a job there. How else to explain that almost all its faculty members are from the same province and share the same ethnic background? Strong preferences for those sharing the same ethnicity is evident everywhere. Last year, the university was shut down for weeks when Sindhi and Baloch students bashed each other with dandas while Punjabi students recorded this gleefully on their smartphones.

As for department Y: to be welcomed on to its faculty you had to belong to the right religious sect. Earlier appointments had in fact reflected this fact but then the other sect — which happens to be the majority sect in Pakistan — couldn’t take it anymore. The inevitable backlash happened and the chairperson was ousted.

In department Z it’s a bit different. A particular candidate was judged to be clearly superior in relation to all others. But a call from ‘above’ — i.e., from the agencies that supposedly protect Pakistan — said he must not be promoted because of his anti-establishment views. As is often the case, only verbal — not written — directives were given. His academic achievements were disregarded. Thus that promotion case ended right there!

Had principled behaviour been a consideration, the above examples would instantly have generated outrage. But only greed and personal benefit exp­lains the present upheaval. Perhaps one particular motivation has been more important than any other.

It so happens that some time ago, certain influential teachers had strong-armed the administration — mostly in the previous VC’s term but also more recently — into granting them massive salary increments. Auditors eventually declared these excess payments illegal and the Higher Education Commission refused to foot the bill, demanding instead that excess amounts be returned.

No way! Instead, these professors — again through the ASA — forced the university to pay and caused student fees to rocket upward. Unaware of the real reason, students directed their anger at the administration. An average teacher’s salary amounts to roughly 10-15 times what they pay to their domestic servants.

Other Pakistani universities are in no better shape than QAU, some decidedly worse. But QAU in Islamabad is supposedly Pakistan’s flagship university. It is located barely two miles from the seat of government. What happens here is watched widely across the country.

Pakistan has been unable to develop a university culture over its 70 years of existence because violators of academic ethics, morality, and basic notions of justice go scot-free. To stop QAU’s rapid descent into a moral black hole, the government needs to enforce the rule of law. Whether they are professors or students, those who use violence to disrupt academic activities should have no place on campus.

Fear of debt

IT is easy to be alarmist about a topic like the level of the national debt, and it is equally easy to mislead people into thinking that the problem presents some sort of an emergency. So at the outset, let’s understand it is a natural and desirable thing that all sovereign governments should carry some level of debt, and that often this debt will be very large by comparison to the size of the economy.

By itself, debt is not a problem, and cutting the numbers to try and show that “each citizen of Pakistan owes X amount of money” is a totally misleading presentation of the facts. No government should ever seek to be totally debt free.

What matters most when talking about national debt is not the absolute amount of the debt, but the carrying capacity of the government or the economy. So when a country like Japan has a national debt that is 253 per cent of its GDP in 2017, the figure may sound alarming because Pakistan has only 60pc. The problem for Pakistan is that our revenues, exports, remittances and foreign investment levels are not rising nearly as fast as they need to in order to enable us to carry even this smaller level of national debt.

Having said that, let me carefully present a picture of where our external debt is going until the year 2023, because something very important is happening in the coming few years and there needs to be greater awareness and debate about this.

What appeared to be a relatively stable external financing situation last summer today looks like a dismal path to bankruptcy.

The data that follows is from the latest Post Programme Monitoring report of the IMF, which is based entirely on data provided by the government, so these are official numbers. The reason they merit detailed scrutiny is because the government’s numbers are telling us one story, whereas its words are telling us another.

With its words the government acknowledges that levels of external debt are set to rise very sharply in the years to come, but the carrying capacity of the economy will improve and make this debt sustainable due to CPEC investments which will boost productivity in the economy.

But the data in the Fund’s report shows otherwise.

Start with this: Pakistan’s total external debt is projected to rise from $93.4 billion this fiscal year, to $145bn by 2023, in five years time. At a 50pc increase in five years, this is one of the fastest rates of growth in recent times. The last 50pc increase in the level of external debt was in the period stretching from 2009 till 2018, ie nine years (data from IMF 2013 Article IV report).

Next take a look at what they call “gross external financing needs”, which includes the current account deficit, plus debt service payments in the period being projected. When Pakistan entered the IMF programme in 2013, this figure was at $9.5bn, and was projected to stay at that level till the time the programme ended in fiscal year 2017.

Instead, by the time the programme ended, the figure, $21.5bn, was well over double where it should have been. This year the figure is expected to rise to $24.5bn, and by the year 2023 it will reach $45bn. Again, this is the fastest rate of growth in gross external financing needs over a five-year period (considered the medium-term outlook) in recent times.

Incidentally, in July 2017, when the Fund made the same projections out till 2022 (five years forward), the gross external financing needs were projected at $20.6bn by the end of the period. The projections made now show these same financing needs coming in at $41.1bn in 2022 instead, meaning the projections have been revised upward very significantly already. And the borrowing binge has yet to start in earnest.

So if our level of gross external debt and external financing needs are rising this fast in the next five-year period, the question is, will the economy be able to sustain this additional burden? The government claims that CPEC investments will enhance the carrying capacity of the economy and make the additional burden sustainable.

The best place to look for validation of this claim is in the projections of the foreign exchange reserves. If the government’s claim is true, the projections should show reserves remaining at a level sufficient to finance more than three months of imports till 2023. Four months’ import cover is considered adequate, three months is bad, two months is serious and one month is critically low.

But the figures show the opposite. They show reserves falling to critically low levels by 2022, barely enough to finance one month’s worth of imports, the level where governments are forced to seek emergency assistance. The decline is steady. From three months of import cover last year, we will drop to 2.2 months this year, 1.8 months the year after that, then 1.5 and 1.3 before hitting the critical level.

Incidentally, the July 2017 Article IV report of the IMF presented a very different outlook. It showed reserves rising slightly from $18.9bn by the end of the current fiscal year to $20.4bn by 2022, with import cover staying comfortably above three months throughout this period. Now suddenly the projections show a very different situation, with reserves at $12bn by the end of the current fiscal year, and falling to $7.1bn by 2023.

What happened in the one year between the last time these projections were drawn up and now? What appeared like a relatively stable external financing situation only last summer today looks like a dismal path to bankruptcy instead.

Would anyone in government (or the IMF) care to explain these numbers? Five years is not that far away, and their own data shows that the economy will be burdened with far higher levels of external debt than it can bear. If the carrying capacity of the economy is expected to increase with CPEC investments, how come this does not show up in the projections?

Natural gas: An underrated driver of Saudi hostility towards Iran and Qatar

Debilitating hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran is about lots of things, not least who will have the upper hand in a swath of land stretching from Central Asia to the Atlantic coast of Africa. While attention is focused on ensuring that continued containment of Iran ensures that Saudi Arabia has a leg up, geopolitics is but one side of the equation. Natural gas is the other.

With signatories to the Paris climate accord moving towards bans on petrol and diesel-driven vehicles within a matter of decades and renewable energy technology advancing in strides, natural gas takes on added significance.

These global energy trends are hastening in an era in which oil will significantly diminish in importance and natural gas, according to energy scholar Sergei Paltsev, will fill gaps in the provision of renewable energy that await technological advances.

Saudia Arabia’s problem is that Iran and Qatar have the gas reserves it does not. That is one reason why renewables figure prominently in Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform program, not only to prepare Saudi Arabia economically for a post-oil future but also to secure its continued geopolitical significance.

Prince Mohammed, like his counterpart in the United Arab Emirates, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, hopes that the kingdom will have an advantage in the generation of solar energy given that the sun hovers higher over his country than over Europe and other parts of the world and that it has less interference from clouds.

As a result, natural gas is a factor in mounting tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and say some analysts, a driver of the Saudi-UAE-led, ten-month-old diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

In what could constitute a serious escalation of hostilities, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen threatened this week to retaliate against Iran in response to missile attacks on the kingdom by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

“Perhaps, the Saudi elite knows all too well that the basis of its power is hollowing out rapidly as a result of the global climate response and anticipated dwindling of conventional oil. The stakes could never have been higher,” said international relations scholar David Crieckmans in a recently published volume on the geopolitics of renewables.

Contributing to the same volume, Thijs van de Graaf, another international relations scholar, suggested that of all the Middle Eastern oil producers, Saudi Arabia may have the most to lose.

Ironically, crippling sanctions that severely hampered Iran’s oil production and only began to be lifted following the 2015 international agreement that curbed the country’s nuclear program coupled with US threats to withdraw from the accord and potentially reimpose sanctions may work in Iran’s favour in the transition to a post-oil world.

“Iran…has a lot of advantages. It has a much broader economic base, a longer tradition of trading, and lower fertility rates… The country’s oil production is much under its potential due to years of sanctions. This might in the long run turn out to be an advantage as these economies prepare themselves for a post-oil age,” Mr. Van der Graaf said.

Add to that the fact that it is likely to be be gas supplies from Iran and Turkmenistan, two Caspian Sea states, rather than Saudi oil that will determine which way the future Eurasian energy architecture tilts: China, the world’s third largest LNG importer, or Europe.

“Iran, within five years, will likely have 24.6 billion cubic metres of natural gas available for annual piped gas exports beyond its current supply commitments. Not enough to supply all major markets, Tehran will face a crucial geopolitical choice for the destination of its piped exports. Iran will be able to export piped gas to two of the following three markets: European Union (EU)/ Turkey via the Southern Gas Corridor centring on the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP), India via an Iran-Oman-India pipeline, or China via either Turkmenistan or Pakistan. The degree to which the system of energy relationships in Eurasia will be more oriented toward the European Union or China will depend on the extent to which each secures Caspian piped gas exports through pipeline infrastructure directed to its respective markets,” energy scholar Micha’el Tanchum argued.

In other words, the existential threat Iran poses to Saudi Arabia goes far beyond the fact that the Islamic republic challenges Saudi monarchical rule by offering an alternative, albeit flawed, form of Islamic governance that incorporates a degree of popular sovereignty. It involves competition in which Iran can leverage assets Saudi Arabia does not have, leaving the kingdom dependent on containment that at best postpones issues rather than accommodates solutions. It also means that the antagonists’ regional proxy wars in Yemen and elsewhere are unlikely to remove the fundamental issues that drive the Saudi-Iranian rivalry and translate into destabilizing short-term policies.

Hardliners, including US President Donald J. Trump’s newly appointed national security advisor, John Bolton, and nominee for the post of secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, may be proponents of regime change in Iran, yet, the question remains whether that would truly alleviate Saudi fears that are shared by Israel. If successful, it would eliminate the Islamic governance challenge, but do nothing to alter the reality of a changing energy landscape.

Barbara Slavin, an Iran expert at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, cautions that a possible US withdrawal next month from the nuclear agreement with Iran does not necessarily mean either the demise of the accord or a re-imposition of a crippling sanctions regime.

“Twenty years ago, Congress passed similar secondary sanctions—the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act—threatening penalties against foreign companies investing in Iran’s oil and gas sector. Europe cried foul and the sanctions were never implemented. That could well be the outcome in May” when Mr. Trump has to decide whether the United States remains a party to the accord, Ms. Slavin noted.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Messy run-up to the elections

THE countdown has begun. Just two months are left to the end of the five-year term of the National Assembly, and the ensuing elections may well lead to the second democratic transition from one elected government to another. It would certainly be a milestone in the country’s rocky political journey. Yet it seems as if there are miles to go before we are there.

Cynicism abounds with the gathering storm on the country’s political horizon. While the so-called Bajwa doctrine has provided fresh impetus to the perennial doubters, some other factors too have contributed to this climate of political uncertainty. Judicial overdrive and the National Accountability Bureau’s blitz against politicians and their alleged henchmen in the bureaucracy have also fuelled conspiracy theories.

Meanwhile, allegations of foul play in the Senate election raise questions about the fairness of the electoral process. Many see the security establishment behind the defeat of the PML-N candidate for Senate chairman. It could be true but it had also to do with the opportunistic alignment of political forces to keep the PML-N from succeeding in its attempts to return to power.

Indeed, the plot has been successful in preventing the ruling party from taking control of the upper house, but it may not work in the general elections, with no possibility of the PPP and PTI joining hands. There is also a limit to what the establishment can do to influence the course of politics that is getting murkier with so many factors coming into the play. It is an extremely unpredictable situation and no one seems to be in charge.

It is an extremely unpredictable situation and no one seems to be in charge.

More critical, however, is the impending accountability court ruling in the graft cases against Nawaz Sharif and his family. The monitoring Supreme Court judge has extended the deadline for the winding up of the trial in three months. Some perceive that such a delay arises out of concerns that a chaotic situation could develop if the former prime minister is convicted while a PML-N government is still in power, and that it is better if it happens under a non-party interim administration.

Yet it will be hard for any government to deal with a possible backlash triggered by a court ruling against the Sharifs on the eve of the general elections. Indeed, the military has promised full backing to the judiciary, and all the state institutions are bound by the Constitution to get the court order implemented; but given the highly explosive political situation, things do not look that good.

There is no indication yet of Sharif, arguably still the most powerful political leader in the country, shedding his defiance. Although chances of any mass protest is unlikely, it would certainly heighten political tensions, with the possibility of the military getting sucked more deeply into the mire. The generals are already in the driving seat with an increasingly weakened civilian government in place.

Surely, a major challenge for the PML-N would be to maintain unity in the ranks in the event of Sharif’s conviction and a clash with what is described as the military-judiciary nexus. The signs of a divide are quite apparent with Chaudhry Nisar openly challenging his erstwhile leader. The former interior minister may not have been very popular among his party colleagues; nevertheless, he represents the sentiments of many other senior members.

But a conviction may also give the party a victim card to play more effectively in the election campaign. It has, indeed, worked well so far in mobilising the party and the general masses. It is quite evident that Sharif’s popular support has not diminished, if it has not increased. It is a serious challenge to the security establishment to contain the disgraced leader who apparently it will not allow to return to power at any cost.

A serious crisis is waiting to happen on the eve of the general elections the outcome of which is hard to predict. It is an unmanageable chaos that would threaten the entire political edifice. That raises questions about the elections being held on time. The cynics have their reasons to be pessimistic.

It is not just about the fallout of the Sharif trial, the court has also ordered retired Gen Musharraf to return to the country and face trial on sedition charges. Noncompliance by the former military ruler could create a challenging situation for both the judiciary and the administration.

The erstwhile army chief’s trial had been a major source of tension between the former Sharif government and the military. The issue could also place the military leadership in an awkward situation, though Gen Bajwa appeared to indicate that his institution did not have any objection to the trial of the former military ruler.

But it will not be that easy for the military leadership to watch its former chief standing trial for treason. It is a well-known fact that Musharraf had the protection of the then military leadership when he returned to the country ending his self-exile in 2013 when he faced multiple cases including treason charges. It is certainly becoming a messy situation casting its shadow over the coming elections.

Though completely unsubstantiated, there has been speculation about a long-term interim arrangement backed by the military and judiciary. The deteriorating state of the economy is also being used to justify the argument for the postponement of general elections and the installation of a long-term technocratic administrative arrangement. Such suggestions come in handy each time the country faces a political crisis. It is, however, unlikely that any political party would agree to such a proposition that could derail the democratic process.

More importantly, such an arrangement would be an extra-constitutional act without any legal cover. That could pull the the country into a bigger political mess with serious implications for the unity of the federation. It is, indeed, a messy run-up to the elections but they are the only way out.

First among equals

[pullquote]Manzoor Pashteen, the leader of the PTM, is charismatic and brave, but is that enough for the state to grant Pashtuns the right to life?[/pullquote]

When Manzoor Pashteen gets nervous, his right eyebrow twitches. It’s almost unnoticeable; he himself claims to be unaware of it. He is also fidgety when he becomes nervous, especially with his hands. When television anchors expect him to prove his Pakistaniat, his patriotism — a hoop all marginalised communities are made to jump through before they are heard — you can hear the sustained tick tick, tick tick of the ball point pen in his hand.

Off camera, during his talks, when he is interrupted he uses his hands to wave down the chanters, the sloganeers. This is because he’s not a speaker who riles up the crowd using anger. His style is more bayaaniya — he will tell you stories that shrink and expand your heart, and make you understand how human the Pashtun pain is, how universal their demands are.
Pashteen, the leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), has not taken centre-stage to ask for separation; on the contrary, his demand is inclusion. He’s not here to ask for a change in the Constitution; he simply demands that the Constitution be upheld in FATA. His demands are basic: justice for the murder of Naqeebullah Mehsud; the formation of a judicial commission to investigate police encounters; the demining of FATA; a reduction of military curfews and check-posts in the tribal areas; and the return of the thousands of missing Pashtuns that are allegedly held by the army and its intelligence services. The formal list of missing people that the PTM has compiled has 1,200 names.

“We are not out here to ask for money, or schools, or even roads, our basic demand is the right to life,” he tells me during a series of phone conversations between us. According to the 24-year-old who is the eldest among his seven siblings, currently there is no certainty to life in his hometown in the Sarwakai district of South Waziristan Agency or other tribal agencies. “This is why we are protesting, we want the right to live without being disappeared, without losing limbs to landmines, without being shot in murky police encounters, without being abused and humiliated at every check-post,” he says to me. “Are my demands unconstitutional? Don’t you already have all these rights?”

When Pashteen speaks, you listen. At first I thought it was just me who was spellbound by his stories, hanging on to every word. But looking around, at a student rally in Garden Town Lahore, and then at a discussion at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) earlier this month, I realised that Pashteen’s storytelling abilities are at par with those of Scheherazade. After all both storytellers tell tales for the same reason: to stay alive.
Manzoor Pashteen tells heartbreaking tales, in the simplest possible language. He talks of mothers who have missing sons. Of how it feels to see a mountain of burnt books, Babylon style.

Pashteen tells heartbreaking tales, in the simplest possible language. He talks of mothers who have missing sons. Of a 7-year-old girl who saw her mother being shot to death. Of how it feels to see a mountain of burnt books, Babylon style. Of families whose bodies were attacked and obliterated by drones, to such an extent that when the father wanted to piece his children together he had to sit down and think about which finger matches which palm. He tells stories about families that lost homes to bombardments and had no option but to set up camp under the shade of keekar trees, only to lose their daughter’s life to a snake that shared their camp.
But along with the logos — the cold hard facts — he also brings pathos, in the form of humour, to the table. Once your heart is heavy and devoid of hope, Pashteen will reveal his naughtier side and take a dig at someone. One of the devices that Pashteen uses is that of apophasis. This is when the speaker brings up a subject by denying that it should be brought up. Ideal for rhetoric in Pakistan. At a speech in Lahore, he says, “I won’t speak about how when we came back to our villages we saw our houses destroyed and the bricks of our houses used to build the Army Hospital. It might be dangerous to speak about this, so I won’t.”

He does it again on TV when a journalist grills him about his demand of relaxing the number of check-posts in FATA. “I won’t talk about the hanky-panky and double dealing that goes on at these check points. It might be dangerous,” says Pashteen. Even the grizzly journalist succumbs, and smiles.

Pashteen’s stories are not unheard. Unless you consciously chose to have your head in the sand, you would know about the brutality of the Frontier Crimes Regulations, the collective punishments, the landmines and so on. But then what is it that makes Pashteen’s retelling so moving?

One of his listeners, Rabia Saeed, a Lahore-based student whose family hails from the Orakzai Agency, has a few ideas about why Pashteen’s bayaan deepened her sorrow but lessened her pain.
“Pashteen made my hurt, our hurt as a community, real. I’ve heard these stories before, but I didn’t know that I was allowed to discuss them in public, nor did I know that I was allowed to feel pain about these stories,” she says. “The death and brutality were just facts of our lives. Pashteen turned them into tales that can be retold and spread.”

Pashteen says that for the last 16 years, talking about their trauma was a taboo, which he has finally broken.

In school Pashteen had the reputation of being an all-out nerd. Once accepted to Gomal Univeristy in Bannu for an MA in veterinary sciences, when Pashteen decided to run for president of the Tribal Students Organization in 2014, the buzz was that he’s not popular enough to be president. “He sacrifices his sleep to study, he’s too much,” they said. In his defense, he says his father, a schoolteacher, would teach him at night after completing his day’s work, and that is how his night-time studying habit formed, he says at a lecture at LUMS.

But why veterinary studies, I ask him. Does he have a particular interest in animals? In response, the leader of a movement — that is “an affirmation of life in the midst of death,” according to academic-activist Ammar Ali Jan — placidly says: “Walid sahib ney kaha tha, toh hum nay karliya,” [My father said I should do veterinary studies, so I did].

Pashteen’s father dissuaded him when he began campaigning and creating awareness for Pashtun rights, in 2014. But he thinks that secretly his father was happy and proud. Apart from the pressure Pashteen felt from his family and villagers, there was pressure to stop demanding the right to Pashtun life from colleagues as well.

It was after securing presidency of the Tribal Leaders Organization that Pashteen really began his career as a human rights activist. He organised the only way he knew: door-to-door. He knocked on tribal students’ doors to ask for support in raising a united voice for Pashtuns. They told him he was paagal [mad]. “You should go see a psychologist, they said” says Pashteen at LUMS. “Whenever Pashtuns have demanded their rights, they’ve been shot dead. You are nothing but the son of a common school teacher, you have no power behind you.”

They began helping people get over their fear of speaking truth to power by holding study circles. Then they expanded to small jalsas, protests at Haq Nawaz Park in D I Khan, demonstrations in Bannu; at that time, they were still only known as the Mehsud Tahaffuz Movement (MTM).

And then after four years of slow but steady activism, a few arrests and threats, arrived a catalyst — in the form of Naqeebullah Mehsud’s untimely and unfair murder. Everyone connects Pashteen’s popularity to Naqeebullah’s murder, but very few know that Pashteen had already chalked out the Islamabad Long March in the December of 2017, a month before Naqeebullah was killed.

There was something about Naqeebullah, his social media persona or maybe his aspirations to be a model that gripped not just Pashtun heartstrings, but those of the nation at large. So when Pashteen announced a jalsa and connected it to Naqeebullah, this time not in the tribal agencies or its surrounding areas, but in Islamabad, people came out in droves.

At the start of the ten-day sit in, journalists ignored it. Politicians looked the other way. But eventually the 6,000 non-violent protestors outside the National Press Club, in February 2018, could not be ignored. The jalsa no longer represented only the Mehsuds, so from MTM, the movement became Pakhtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM). Political parties came to give their haazri and eventually the government came too. They agreed to fulfill PTM’s demands and the jalsa dispersed.

The jalsa dispersed from Islamabad on Feb 10 but in the hearts of Pashtuns, the awakening had just begun. So the PTM and Pashteen have been holding jalsas and events in Lahore, D I Khan, Quetta, Killa Saifullah, Peshawar and all over social media. After 16 years of war and oppression, they have found a leader who looks like them, dresses like them and most importantly, dares to speak their truth.

Pashteen is not the only Pashtun leader who has risen in the last decade or so. To say that would be to erase the history of so many brave Pashtuns. Take Ali Wazir for example. He is vocal about the oppression of FATA, and has paid the price of losing 17 family members. But while Ali’s hurt is fiery and angry, Pashteen’s is calm and controlled. Pashteen doesn’t make his pain about himself, the PTM is about humanity at large; they have invited all the historically oppressed to his movement: Baloch, Hazara, women, and all Pashtun regardless of their tribe.

And they have all come running. When Pashteen arrived at Killa Saifullah earlier this month, he was greeted like a rockstar. While walking up to the stage, the crowd love-surged towards Pashteen so ferociously that his posse had to hold hands and make a human chain around him for protection.

Pashteen is articulate, educated, and fearless, but that’s not all. His appeal is also cultivated through details. For instance, the clothing he chooses. The red-and-black hat that he won’t be seen without has developed its own legend: it’s said that Pashteen received it from a labourer in his hometown. Now, his followers, including PkMAP’s Hashim Khan, don the Pashteen-hat with pride.

A close friend of Pashteen’s, Raza Wazir, says that his appeal comes from the work he has done at the grassroots level. When no one was working for the Pashtuns, it was Pashteen who was recording the names of the those who had been forcibly disappeared, or those dead by landmines. “He was providing food and ration to families that had lost everything,” says Raza. But Pashteen’s true appeal, in Raza’s opinion, lies in his vast vision. “Most leaders work for their village, their tehsil, their tribe. Pashteen invited all Pashtuns,” he says. “And made them feel welcomed, important and heard.”

Pashteen can’t say why he is receiving this attention. He does say that he derives his energy from the mothers whose sons are missing and fights for their right to life. “Laapata is such a small worthless word. It doesn’t carry the pain of a missing family member,” he says. “When your son is laapata, your trauma has no wound so it can never heal.”

Pashteen claims to not have any mentors. When I ask him who he looks up to, he laughs awkwardly. “You are right, most leaders do have someone to look up to, but everyone we looked up to has been killed,” he says. He’s speaking of FATA’s local masharaan [leaders]. In his stories, Pashteen pays homage to how they continued to dare to speak truth to power — despite knowing the costs — until there were no masharaan left. He says instead of learning from books of philosophy or literature, he has learnt from his own experiences of living in a warzone.
In a recent opinion piece, he says that people tell him to read the history of Pashtun people, to prevent repeating the same mistakes. A friend recently gifted him Dr King’s A letter from Birmingham Jail. But he hasn’t yet found time to crack it open. He says, instead, perhaps it’s time for the Pashtun to make history of their own. Since the pain is their own, only they know the prescription.

He doesn’t think that no one can replace him, nor does he care about who leads the PTM to success, as long as Pashtuns are awarded the right to live. In this sense, he can be regarded less as a leader, and more as the first among equals.

According to journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai, the army is watching the PTM and Pashteen closely. “They aren’t acting yet because perhaps they are waiting for Pashteen and his excitable colleagues to make a mistake themselves.”

Activists are not politicians; they aren’t trained about what they shouldn’t say to the media. Already, the PTM has made some mistakes. In Killa Saifullah, earlier this month, Pashteen and others were booked for raising anti-army slogans.

A second fear for PTM is pressure from Pashtun ethno-nationalist parties. At first, they supported him and the Pashtun Long March, but now, Yusufzai says, they may be feeling threatened by the PTM. “Just last week a member of the PTM, Mohsin Dawar, who is also a member of the ANP, was removed from ANP’s youth committee. He was told that since he is part of another [PTM] group he can’t hold a position in the ANP,” says Yusufzai.

On his part, Pashteen negates the idea of him entering parliamentary politics. But who is to say that in the upcoming election, the PTM won’t garner support for certain parties over others? Already, under coercive pressure from television talk show hosts, Pashteen has admitted that on a personal level he wishes FATA to be merged with KP.

Yusufzai also predicts “in the future, there may be infighting in the PTM, especially at the tribal level”.

But even with these fears looming large, PTM’s demands are steadily being met. The demining of South Waziristan has begun. Rao Anwar was arrested last week. Although the naysayers say the arrest has nothing to do with PTM, many such as Yusufzai and activist Jibran Nasir believe that PTM’s pressure had a lot to do with Anwar’s arrest. Even disappeared Pashtuns are being sent home, others are being presented in court. The numbers are small, mere hundreds in light of the missing thousands. But it’s a start.

In another life Pashteen would’ve opted to be an Air Force Pilot, but when he saw the Air Force dropping bombs on him, he gave up that dream. Then he thought, maybe the system could be changed from the inside? He thought about joining the Public Service Commission and even took the exam, he scored a 150 — you only need 124 to be called in for an interview.

Unfortunately, the date of the interview clashed with a national event he had arranged — the Long March — and he chose consciously.

“I wish I had a chance to live a normal life, who doesn’t?” he says. “Your capability is one thing, but the halaat around you also define your life choices.” Recently he’s made another choice he wishes he didn’t have to. His baby girl is one month old, but he hasn’t been able to carve out time to sit with his family and choose a name for her.

This Article originally published in TNS

Inside the secrets of Intelligence Bureau (IB): IB becomes no.1 counter terror spy outfit?

[pullquote]Details of a rare visit to its headquarters by Azaz Syed[/pullquote]

ISLAMABAD: The Intelligence Bureau (IB), Pakistan’s premier civilian intelligence outfit’s headquarter is not known as IB headquarters in Islamabad’s Secretariat; rather it is known as, “K” Block, located almost at the deep end of the secretariat towards the mighty Margalla Hills of the federal capital, Islamabad.

Whenever you ask anybody about the location of “K” Block in Islamabad, he would briefly look at you and would guide you towards the location.

Being a journalist curious to meeting interesting personalities and visiting places where only a few have access, you would obviously land here. I was there to follow the whispers about the agency’s role in recent make and break in Balochistan Assembly and during Senate elections.

During my visit to the agency headquarters, one of the top officers of the agency was my host who wants to be anonymous. When you enter the building after going through the required security check ups, you observe a big green gate where security personals give you a final go ahead to enter the building. “K” Block in green color is also visibly inscribed at the wall on the entrance gate. The moment you enter, you see a wide cemented road going straight and also taking a left turn, on the right there is a parking area for about 15 to 20 vehicles.

The security personnel guides you to the parking and signals you to the main building where office of the, IB chief is located. It’s right on the left from the entrance gate. If you have a chauffeur he can drop you at the main gate and if you don’t have like myself then you have to walk almost 80,90 steps for entering the building after parking your car in the specified area.

The squared shaped IB, headquarters is located at a hilly point at about 100 canals of land. Its present building was built in late 1960s and the chiefs of this agency started sitting in the present building since 1973.

The front side of the building has only one entrance, apparently. The moment you get closer you find two flags mounted on your left side in a small green belt which is almost one an half feet higher than ground. One is of Pakistan’s national flag and the other is IB’s organizational flag and on their feet 1947 is visibly inscribed on a cemented block.

A wooden rack with multiple shelves is the most prominent thing you observe when you step in the main building after passing a walk through gate. The shelves are filled with different souvenirs of foreign agencies, given to IB, giving reflection of its coordination with other international spy agencies. In this area you feel that silence is dominating the environment and a dim light increases the sense of suspense to the visitor.

The young receptionist with silver suit and a blue tie passes a smile and gives you the security badge, with a request of submitting mobile phones at that point. Then he accompanies you to upstairs.

IB Chied Khalid Sultan

The walls of building corridors from downstairs to upstairs are renovated with beautiful paintings fixed in wonderful wooden frames. While walking through the office of the spy agency one feels that walls around you are privy to many secrets. The secrets range from history to date and the officers and the employees working in this building are the custodians of these secrets.

After about 30 steps you reach the first floor which is probably the executive floor, where chief of the agency sits. The first chief of the agency G. Ahmed was appointed 13 days (on August 1 1947) before the partition reveals that agency is 13 days older than the country herself. To date 39 chiefs headed the agency, though it was headless at times.

Apparently the first 13 chiefs of the agency were civil bureaucrats; it was only Gen Zia which appointed first military officer Major General Agha Nek Muhammad as its chief on April 16th 1985 who continued until 30th July 1986 when a police officer Aslam Hayat replaced him. Out of the 38 chiefs of the agency since 1947, nine were military officers.

Traditionally IB and its chief are known as the eyes and ears of the prime minister who appoints the agency head and most of the time depends on them more than any other intelligence outfit.

Currently Aftab Sultan, a retired officer of the police service, is heading the agency since June 7, 2013. He was appointed by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif who picked him up probably because of his strong-headed nature.

Aftab Sultan was the one, who being a senior police officer deployed in Sargodha during the Musharraf regime, had refused to choreograph referendum in favour of the dictator. Aftab was made OSD (officer on special duty) as punishment.

It is not the first time he is serving on the position rather he had also remained the choice of former Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani between October 2011 to July 2012 for the same slot. Aftab Sultan is the only officer who has served two different governments of PPP and PML.N under almost four different Prime Ministers ranging from Yousaf Raza Gillani, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, Nawaz Sharif and now PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. Tenure of Aftab Sultan is ending on 2nd April and his farewell visits have started formally. He is the 39th chief of the agency. IB remained central arm of the civilian Prime Minister since 2014 protest sit in at Islamabad to Panama and Dawn leaks however its officers believe that their real success is in the field of countering terrorism during last five years.

“We can say that IB has become the No.1 counter terrorism agency,” says a key officer of the agency further adding that, “We have increased the capacity of agency in countering terrorism while joining hands with the provincial police and Counter Terrorism Departments (CTD),” , For backing up his point of view he shared data saying that during 2013 to the end of 2017 IB has carried out 3635 intelligence based operations across the country and traced 7062 high profile and terrorism cases in the country.

The officer shared that IB has resolved 70 cases of suicide terrorism, 165 bomb blasts and 867 target cases of target killings were resolved besides 257 cases of the attacks on law enforcement agencies. According to the data shared with this correspondent IB arrested 2779 terrorists and 1205 proclaimed offenders and during these entire process 29 officers of the spy agency embraced martyrdom.

“I can tell you proudly that we are far ahead of any other intelligence outfit with regard to countering terrorism despite our fewer resources in comparison with some sister agencies. We are ready to present our work before parliament which may draw a comparison,” the officer said.

What about the political make-and-break in Balochistan and the Senate of Pakistan? I asked the officer. “We had already informed the elected government about the situation emerging in Balochistan including the fact that some key officials were directly involved in making and breaking the government in the province and the same was the situation about the recent Senate elections, we informed the government what we knew, and “we knew”,” the officer emphasized.

When I asked “if you were aware of the protest sit in at Faizabad by clerics led by Khadim Hussain Rizvi”, the official said: “here too we had our homework done and forewarned the government about what was coming, and later kept informing what was happening.”

Once a key government functionary told this correspondent that during the protest sit in (dharna) of 2014, a very important, top official had held a meeting with Aftab Sultan asking him to come to his side which he had refused, I narrated the incident to the official for confirmation. “Yes it’s true,” was a short answer with no details.

“We are here to help the constitutionally elected government; it’s not our job to take part in any kind of conspiracies against the government. We are also bound to tell what is right and what is wrong, we are proudly doing it,” the officer added.

When I said: “In a country where civil military imbalance often create situations, only a few understand the importance of the constitution and the sanctity of the elected prime minister,” I was told: “This office (IB HQs) has always stood by the supremacy of parliament and the constitution, and that is why its chief always attended each meeting of the parliament or any of its committee which called him. The IB chief remained always available before the courts as this agency respects the courts,” the officer said.

I was told that since the current chief of the agency is retiring on April 2 following which one of the two police officers, Khaliq Dad Luck and Dr. Suleman, is likely to become the next chief. However Dr. Suleman, currently heading KPK chapter of the agency, has a fair chance to be elevated.

Women and math

THE drill is well known: every time the results of some sort of worldwide survey are released, women in the Muslim world are towards the bottom. Afghan women usually occupy the lowest rungs of political participation, women in Somalia and Sudan have the lowest access to healthcare facilities, women in Iraq and Syria are forced into marriages at astoundingly young ages, and Pakistani women along with Egyptian women experience high levels of domestic violence and general misogyny.

Years of these sorts of surveys, products of complexities reduced to variables and relationship to regression, have taught those who read them to approach with caution, a degree of warranted criticism, a degree of preparedness for the disappointments to follow.

It was a pleasant surprise, therefore, to encounter a study that upended all others. In her book titled Fifty Million Rising, social scientist Saadia Zahidi found that women in many Muslim countries have a higher number of graduates in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) fields than their counterparts in other nations. The percentages are impressive: in Iran, 70 per cent of university graduates in STEM fields are women; in Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, 60pc of graduates are women, and over 40pc of science graduates in Algeria are women. According to Zahidi, the reason for the advance is that many of these Muslim countries have invested heavily in improving women’s access and education in these fields.

It’s not that they do not encounter gender stereotypes or the sort of constraints that come from being a woman in conservative and male-dominated societies, it is that women are genuinely ambitious and want to excel. In some countries, like the UAE and Jordan, girls actually expressed greater confidence in their math skills than boys at the same age and grade level. In contrast to these percentages, only 18pc of all computer science degrees at American universities are awarded to women. At the high school level, only 27pc of those who sit for the Advanced Placement Computer Science Exam are female.

Women in many Muslim countries have a higher number of graduates in STEM fields than their counterparts in other nations.

Of course, each time there are survey results that are surprising, there are also uncommon interpretations that seek to unravel the supposed mystery that would explain them. In this case, some analysts have turned to considering how women who are disadvantaged in many ways, often denied permission to do this or that, their freedom circumscribed by tribe or tradition, manage to pull off such a feat. The answer they found lay in the realm of what the women aspired to achieve. According to another study published in the journal Psychological Science, women in countries with the highest degree of gender inequality pursue STEM careers in science and technology because they want the “clearest possible” path to financial success. This clear path often means pursuing a science- or math-based profession.

The issue, then, is not one of aptitude or natural ability. Analysing data from women across 67 countries, researchers found that girls performed equally or better than boys in the metrics of math performance, and girls would have qualified for college-level math courses had they chosen to enrol in them. What girls would choose if their choices did not have adverse effects on their career prospects is of course a different matter. In nearly all countries except Romania and Lebanon, girls picked reading instead of math as their favourite subject. Similarly, boys picked math instead of reading.

The explanation, then, for the disparity or relative superiority of girls in Muslim countries is simply that richer countries have greater gender equality. When there is greater gender equality, there are more choices and fewer consequences for the wrong ones. Given the greater number of choices, women are able to choose what they want to do rather than what they have to do. As a result, the greater the gender equality, the lower the numbers of girls engaged in STEM careers.

It’s a good explanation but not necessarily the most convincing one. For one, if it’s gender inequality within a given society that is the determinant in these differences, then higher levels of gender inequality would make it even harder for women to pursue and excel in STEM fields. Given that these fields tend to be dominated by males, women in conservative countries would face even more obstacles and hence be less likely to choose them even if they did present a clear path to financial stability.

Finally, since many women may pursue training in a particular STEM field, even though they may not expect to actually have a profession (this is the case in many Muslim countries), the explanation that they only choose careers based on financial possibility and stability rather than on preference does not hold sway.

Whether or not one believes the varying analyses, one fact holds regardless of how we explain the results of the survey. Whether women choose science, technology, engineering and math based on what they believe will be a stable and lucrative career, or language-based fields based on their preference (in rich countries), they are able to adapt to the sociological conditions that are best for them. This adaptability shows how women, having faced obstacles for centuries, have likely become far more resilient than men who imagine few social, cultural or legal constraints to their achievement.

Women in Muslim countries confront the most obstacles, nearly all of them arbitrary and imposed by men. Long conditioned to expect these kinds of obstacles in their way, they learn to work extra hard, be better than the best and as perfect as possible. The hard sciences and the STEM fields in general, empirical as they are, reveal the fruits of this section of the population that knows they have to be beyond excellent to be taken seriously and to avail themselves of the same opportunities as their male counterparts. Women in Muslim countries excel, therefore, because they are more used to challenges and to hardship than other women in the world; a thorny mathematical problem, a conundrum of construction or industrial design, is nothing in comparison to what they face in just getting to and returning from work or school on any given day.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

[email protected]

Published in Dawn