Dawn Editorial 2nd August 2023

Intelligence failure

BESTIAL violence once again stalks the land. There have been 18 suicide bombings already this year, surpassing the 15 such attacks during all of 2022. The horror of the latest one, in Bajaur district’s Khar tehsil on Sunday, continues to unfold as poignant details about the victims come to the fore and the critically injured breathe their last in hospital.

So far, over 50 people have lost their lives, almost half of them minors. The militant Islamic State-Khorasan group claimed responsibility for the attack at the JUI-F rally in which the principal target appears to have been the party’s Khar ameer, Ziaullah Jan: the event had been underway for two hours but the attacker detonated his explosives-laden vest only after the former arrived at the venue. Maulana Ziaullah and his 22-year-old son died in the attack.

On Monday, MNAs denounced the attack as the result of “complete failure” on the part of Pakistan’s multiple intelligence agencies. It is difficult to disagree, considering these agencies have now had decades of experience in dealing with terror groups and security forces have carried out a number of ‘intelligence-based operations’ against them.

Their inability to prevent the Bajaur bombing has handed IS-K its biggest mass casualty ‘success’ since the sectarian attack on a Peshawar mosque last year, in which at least 64 people perished.

A recent UN report noted that in Afghanistan, distinctions between members of Al Qaeda and affiliated groups, including TTP, and IS-K are sometimes fuzzy and that there is a “tendency for people to gravitate towards the dominant or ascending power”. Attacks such as the Bajaur bombing are thus useful for terrorist outfits to ‘burnish their credentials’ and attract recruits.

Moreover, there had been consistent indications of IS-K’s presence in Bajaur, which is contiguous with Afghanistan’s Kunar province — well known as a locale for terrorist training camps. The militant outfit had made an assassination attempt on Maulana Ziaullah last year as well and slain at least another cleric in the district. Had the attackers been tracked down, perhaps Sunday’s tragedy could have been averted.

Some experts believe that IS-K militants, under pressure from the Afghan Taliban, have moved from their bases in Afghanistan and set up cells in major cities in Pakistan where they can more easily avoid detection. Several targeted killings in Peshawar this year of religious scholars as well as members of minority communities were traced to a network of IS-K militants — all Afghan nationals — in the city.

With an election around the corner, political parties must have security protocols in place in coordination with law-enforcement agencies. The intelligence apparatus should be streamlined and work in concert under an empowered Nacta. We cannot afford blurred lines between politics and national security — or a bloodbath could be in store.

Published in Dawn, August 2nd, 2023

SBP projections

THE State Bank’s decision to keep its policy rate unchanged at 22pc doesn’t sync well with a key goal of the new $3bn IMF facility that requires it to pursue a “continued tight, proactive and data-driven monetary policy aimed at disinflation”. The decision, made on a ‘forward-looking’ basis, may eventually boomerang on the SBP, given its poor track record to correctly forecast headline inflation, and act in a timely fashion to unanchor the build-up of inflationary expectations. The bank is expecting headline consumer inflation to remain in the range of 20-22pc in FY24, falling from 29.2pc in the last fiscal and 28.2pc in July. The statement projects inflation to decelerate gradually during the first half of the present year before easing below 20pc in the second half. That implies, according to SBP projections, a significant level of positive real interest rates. Apparently, the bank has taken into account the impact of the hike of up to Rs7.5 per unit in base power tariff in its inflation forecasts for the year to leave interest rates unchanged. But it did not incorporate the inflationary effect of the almost Rs20 per litre increase in diesel and petrol prices to pass on the upward change in international oil rates to consumers as required under the IMF agreement.

The bank also appears rather optimistic in expectations of a low current account deficit, the other major factor influencing monetary policy decisions. It expects the deficit to be in the range of 0.5pc to 1.5pc of GDP. Its confidence stems from the reduction in the gap to 0.7pc last year from 4.7pc in the previous one, as well as a likely downward trend in global commodity prices. The SBP itself admits that its projections about the economy are “subject to risks arising from domestic and external shocks such as adverse climate events, and global commodity price volatility”. Besides, there also are concerns that the fiscal consolidation measures taken so far may fall short of the targets, undermining efforts to contain inflation. Therefore, it would have been much better for it to at least slightly raise the cost of borrowing to send a signal to the market that it is here to unanchor future inflationary expectations. If the idea is to boost private lending, it can’t happen even at the present rates or in the current uncertain economic conditions.

Published in Dawn, August 2nd, 2023

Haryana riots

AS India prepares for general elections next year, one can expect the Sangh Parivar to deploy dubious methods to give the ruling BJP a boost in the polls. One of the most successful — albeit dangerous — strategies in the Sangh’s playbook is to fan the flames of communalism in order to assure the BJP’s radical voter base that it remains ‘tough’ on minorities, particularly Muslims. The recent deadly clashes in BJP-ruled Haryana appear to be following this disturbing pattern. Communal clashes broke out on Monday after a Hindu procession, supported by the radical VHP and Bajrang Dal outfits, was stoned in Nuh town. In reaction, Hindu mobs burnt down a mosque in Gurgaon. At least five people have been killed in the disturbances, including two security men and an imam. Curfew has been clamped in the worst-affected parts, while extra security forces have been called in to keep the peace.

Opposition politicians said reports had been circulating several days earlier that some notorious hatemongers had been invited to attend the procession, and questioned why these figures were allowed to participate. While the exact trigger of the violence is not known, in previous instances, Hindu hardliners have been instrumental in instigating mobs to taunt and attack Muslims. Moreover, opposition members have noted that as elections draw close, the BJP will use communal violence, hate speech and minority-baiting to grab votes. Certainly, religious clashes over the past few months in West Bengal, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Gujarat indicate that these fears are not unfounded. The communal situation in Manipur, also a BJP-ruled state, is particularly grim. India’s central government needs to control these disturbing trends and rein in the Sangh Parivar as elections won after brutalising the country’s minorities will have little legitimacy. Furthermore, the opposition, particularly the newly formed INDIA alliance, needs to reassure minorities that it stands by them, and rejects the politics of hatred and marginalisation.

Published in Dawn, August 2nd, 2023

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