Pakistan’s politicians and its people
Now that all the drama about Nawaz Sharif’s treatment abroad is over and he’s finally left – for four weeks, apparently – popular debate has sadly, though quite expectedly, turned to whether the government played some sort of master stroke or, to the contrary, the judiciary left the executive a little red faced. PTI supporters see the events of the last few weeks as something of a win. The government kept the pressure, went the extra mile to milk some sort of guarantee out of Nawaz, and then bowed to the court’s decision. That way they can let everybody blame the judges if Nawaz doesn’t return and, in the worst case scenario, they can no longer be blamed if something bad should happen to the three time former prime minister.
The pro-opposition crowed, on the other hand, see the verdict as a clear loss for PTI, especially the prime minister. They did all they could, they’re saying, yet not only could they not squeeze any money from Nawaz, they could not keep him lock-up either. Then there’s the customary praise for the judiciary – a rarity considering PML-N’s recent past – for not allowing the government to commit a grave miscarriage of justice. Now if Nawaz returns they’ll pile yet more laurels on him, and if he doesn’t it will be because the doctor said so. A unique moment, then, where two opposing camps are celebrating victory, of sorts, out of a single court verdict.
After plain, cold analysis, though, it is pretty clear that the government did not get what it wanted at the end of the day. Many cabinet members were a little too vocal about their desire to keep Nawaz from travelling. Perhaps they were voicing genuine sentiments or maybe, as sections of the press have been saying, they wanted to sound just like the prime minister sounded not too long ago. Now, with Nawaz off the hook at least for the time being, they are left a little embarrassed as well.
And so this debate will go for another four weeks, when Nawaz is due back; and depending on what happens then it will take a new turn. Sadly that is what popular politics has been reduced to. The people are still no nearer to the government machinery – government as well as opposition in the House – turning to their (people’s) legitimate needs for a change. Hopes were raised when Imran rose to PM, making all sorts of promises about changing the usual style of governance, etc, and making laws in favour of the common man. Sadly that promise too, just like most other PTI promises, has yet to see the light of day. Hopefully soon enough the country’s senior most politicians will realise that their prime responsibility is not defeating and humiliating each other, but serving the people and the country. *
Another attempt at Afghan peace?
It seems, after the Taliban and Afghan government exchanged prisoners on Tuesday, that the Afghan peace process is showing signs of life once again. It stayed out of the headlines after US President Donald Trump effectively killed it with a tweet in September, primarily because of the direction the negotiations had taken. The main problem with the process headed by US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was that it completely excluded the legitimate Afghan government. For more than a year the Americans talked with the Taliban with zero input from Kabul, no doubt frustrating President Ghani. To make matters worse, whenever Ghani tried to remind everybody that he, not the Taliban, represented his country, the Americans would still side with the insurgents and not include the government in the talks. It only made matters worse, no doubt, that the Taliban kept calling the government ‘US puppets’.
Now, for some reason, the insurgents have decided to purposefully engage with Kabul. The prisoner exchange should be the first of a series of confidence building measures, laying a solid foundation for the two legitimate stakeholders in this long, ugly war to negotiate directly. And both have something to gain. The Afghan government has been stretched beyond capacity ever since it was erected with the help of the US and the wider international community. Consumed by the war, it has been unable to pay attention to or provide funds for people’s most pressing needs. It needs the war to end more than anything at the moment.
And the Taliban, for all their gains and snowballing Spring Offensives since at least 2006, know as well as anybody that they will never take Kabul again. Even if the government is ridiculed for its writ not really extending beyond the capital, it is well known that it, backed by the US/nato alliance of course, will never relinquish Kabul. Peace talks, on the other hand, can catapult the Taliban right back to the government as coalition stakeholders. That, really, is about as good a deal as they can hope for no matter what kind of gains they make on the battlefield.
Once this process gets going hopefully a complete US/nato withdrawal will follow and Afghans will be left to sort out their own issues. All countries who’ve helped kick start talks again after the Trump snub, especially Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran, must be appreciated for their effort. But they must also realise that once the talks are on track they must all withdraw. Afghanistan has suffered for decades owing to outside interference. This must finally be the moment when all sorts of non-Afghan influences end and an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned process takes over *