Janus in Islamabad

Is Pakistan's once and likely future prime minister someone the United States can work with?

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan Nearly 15 years after he was ousted in a bloodless coup, business tycoon Nawaz Sharif and his center-right party are poised to regain control over Pakistan's government, according to early returns from the historic May 11 vote -- the first transfer of power from one elected government to another in the country's history. 

Like the last two times he won the premiership, Sharif appears to have ridden to power on the back of strong support from his Punjabi heartland, a province that is home to much of the Pakistani elite, but also a patchwork of violent sectarian and Islamic groups. 

Nobody has ever accused Sharif, himself, of being an extremist, but like anywhere else, success in Pakistani politics requires playing to the base. Take Sharif’s push in 1998, during his second stint as prime minister, to pass a constitutional amendment that would have imposed sharia law across the country. “He doesn’t believe in sharia,” said William Milam, the U.S. ambassador in Pakistan at the time. “This was a totally cynical thing to do, it was obviously directed to try and keep the Islamists attached to him.”

Few, if any, in Washington or Islamabad think Sharif and his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), will try to change the overall trajectory of bilateral relations between the United States and Pakistan -- on security or other priorities. But Sharif’s track record of ambivalence towards extremists could prove troubling in more nuanced ways.

Sharif's senior advisers insist he would be committed to working in close collaboration with the United States, including on security issues, the fact that PML-N governments have, as Millam put it, "played footsie," with extremist groups in the past represents exactly the sort of mixed message many in Pakistan worry the violence-wracked country simply cannot afford.

Since the end of last decade, Pakistan has faced a growing threat from the domestic insurgent group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, also known as the Pakistani Taliban, composed of Islamic fundamentalists intent on overthrowing the state. What once was a movement largely confined to the country's remote tribal areas now has a growing presence in major urban hubs, most worryingly Karachi, Pakistan largest city and its economic heartbeat. In a bid to disrupt the elections, they've launched terrorist attacks that have left more than 100 people dead in recent months.

Gone are the days when Pakistan's powerful military could take on foes -- both its own and Americas -- with impunity and not face popular pushback. A decade ago, President Pervez Musharraf, a general who assumed power in a 1999 military coup, enjoyed almost unfettered power to partner closely with the United States in its post-Sept. 11 "war on terror." Now he is under house arrest in his estate on the outskirts of Islamabad, facing trial for his actions during the waning days of his term. According to retired three-star Pakistani Army Gen. Talat Masood, today in Pakistan "there is a lot of confusion, especially amongst the political class" about the military campaign against extremists.

"And because of the political confusion and in the media, the people are also equally confused as to exactly what this war is all about, whom it is directed to," Masood explained in Islamabad earlier this spring -- a key reason, he said, for Pakistan's recent failures in its fight against militants.

Former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States Maleeha Lodhi put it more directly. What Pakistan needs, she said, is a strong government that will tell its people, "we need to confront this threat, here's how we're going to do it, we need your support."

In the last few years, she lamented, "I have not...seen anybody stand up and make that kind of a speech."

In the waning days of this year's campaign, Sharif began to speak out publicly -- including to Western media -- against what he has characterized as a flawed U.S. "war on terror."

But Sharif's senior advisors have also taken pains to highlight the party's longstanding partnership with the United States, including their boss's close relationship with former President Bill Clinton during his time in office. The message: Sharif is a known quantity to U.S. policymakers, as opposed to, say, Pakistani cricket icon Imran Khan, who has publicly threatened to shoot down U.S. drones if elected prime minister.

Sharif's advisors said in March that should the PML-N form the next government -- which is likely to be a coalition -- the plan is to "pursue a policy of close cooperation, of intense dialogue," said Tariq Fatemi, Sharif's senior foreign policy advisor and a former ambassador to the United States, particularly in neighboring Afghanistan, whose stability is a top priority for both countries.

When it comes to actual prescriptions for reining in the patchwork of militant groups whose violence is paralyzing more and more of the country, PML-N officials emphasized a holistic approach. "Force alone will not resolve this problem," Iqbal insisted. "We have a whole comprehensive package of ... reforms that we believe will go after acts of militancy and terrorism at the root," the deputy secretary explained, launching into a presentation on the party's scheme for dividing and conquering militants' various sources of support.

"There are elements who have been misguided on religious message, which is the wrong narrative of religion. So we need to engage them by giving them an alternate narrative," said Iqbal. "There are people who have joined this movement for social reasons, social inequality and other reasons. So we need to have justice and good governance."

"And then there are also people who are criminals," he continued, "who are joining the bandwagon of extremists for their own agendas. So we need effective policing and effective intelligence to bust their ranks."

If that sounds familiar, there's a good reason. The U.S. government has outlined a similar vision of "reintegration" and "reconciliation" to bring the West's war with the Taliban to a close in neighboring Afghanistan. Ultimately, most analysts agree that Pakistan will need a political solution in its own war against militancy as well. The problem, as the United States has found with the Afghani Taliban, is that it is difficult to pursue that path from a position of weakness.

"Negotiations have to be conducted from a point of strength. And everybody agrees that the government is not attacking from strength," said prominent Pakistani nuclear expert and peace activist Abdul Hameed Nayyar. "There will have to be a strategy where first of all the militants are in some manner defanged and then they can move to take them on and try get them to negotiate."

The worry is that Sharif's party is going at this backwards -- more willing to negotiate with militants than to fight them.

"The one thing I would say to the next government is if you want to engage with these groups, you have to engage on the basis of the law and the constitution," cautioned Lodhi. "Because anything short of that is appeasement. And we know appeasement never pays."

When it comes to terrorism, Sharif and his fellow party members "believe that there is no room for extremism in Islam or in Pakistani society," Iqbal insisted.

But word and deed are two different things.

Many in Pakistan have not forgotten the image, a few years back, of Punjab's law minister and high ranking PML-N official Rana Sanaullah appearing in a motorcade with Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi, the onetime leader of the Punjabi-based Sunni sectarian group Sipah-e-Sahaba, which is banned in Pakistan as a terrorist group. Other militant groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba -- the group behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks -- also call the province of Punjab home. Sipah-e-Sahaba has since morphed into the Islamist political party Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, and according to multiple reports in the Pakistani media, it reached an agreement with the PML-N to jointly support candidates for roughly a dozen parliamentary seats.

Not surprisingly, this has Pakistani liberals and minorities nervous. Sectarian violence is on the rise in Pakistan -- there is evidence of it even in Islamabad, a relative oasis of calm, where calls to "Stop Shiite Genocide" are scrawled across the whitewashed walls of government compounds all over town. While Sunni extremists like Jaish-e-Mohammed have not focused on targeting the United States, there is a growing consensus in Pakistan that ambiguity towards militants plays into the hands of violent groups of all stripes.

Of course, ambiguity has been a hallmark of Pakistani counterterrorism policy for decades. The United States, for example, continues to criticize Pakistan's military for covertly supporting militant groups fighting Western troops in Afghanistan. Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, went as far as dubbing the militant Haqqani Network a "veritable arm" of Pakistan's intelligence agency in 2011.

Sharif has also taken a tough stand against militants at times. In the late 1990's, for example, "he wanted to be helpful where he could," Milam recalled, "but he was very careful and cautious."

In his own recent conversations with Sharif's advisers, Rand Corp. counterterrorism expert Seth G. Jones said they expressed great concern about the Pakistani Taliban, and a desire to secure continued U.S. assistance to fight the group. The United States currently provides military aid and counterinsurgency assistance for Pakistan to the tune of several billion dollars per year.

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, the executive director of the Islamabad-based think tank Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, also pointed out that one of the extremists groups Sharif and his party stand accused of tolerating tried to assassinate the PML-N leader in 1999. "Let's not forget Nawaz Sharif's government came down very heavily against Lakshar-e-Jhangvi," back then, which is why they targeted him, said Mehboob.

That's why he and others predict little change in the status quo between Pakistan and the United States regardless of election outcome. "I don't think there will be any major policy shift if the PML-N or PPP or even PTI comes in power," Mehboob said earlier this spring, using the acronyms for the ruling Pakistan People's Party and Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. He concluded, however, that "they have different approaches" when it comes to countering extremists.

If the PML-N does succeed in forming the next government, it will by all likelihood be via a broad coalition that could very well include members of Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat and other Islamist parties. "It seems," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Pakistani defense analyst based in Lahore, "that Pakistan's already confused policy on countering terrorism will become more vague."

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images


Death Mill

How the ready-made garment industry captured the Bangladeshi state.

SAVAR, Bangladesh — The stench of Bangladesh's worst-ever industrial disaster lingers with you long after departing what is left of the Rana Plaza factory complex, which collapsed on April 24. Now, with the death toll reaching more than 900 and additional corpses still being pulled from the rubble day and night, Bangladeshis are reeling from a fresh industrial tragedy. Just after midnight on Wednesday, a fire broke out in a Dhaka clothing factory, trapping eight people who died of asphyxiation.

Both tragedies -- which follow on the heels of a similar factory fire last November that left more than 100 people dead -- weigh heavily on the country's conscience. They also extend deep into its economy and politics, both of which are tightly intertwined with Western commercial interests. Ready-made garments are Bangladesh's largest export industry, accounting for more than 75 percent of exports and raking in some $19 billion annually. And with 3.6 million Bangladeshis -- mainly women with little education or training -- working in approximately 4,000 textile and garment factories throughout the country, the industry has rapidly injected wages, albeit small ones, into the previously underemployed and underempowered rural class.

But in a country rife with corruption, where regulations are regularly flouted, this progress comes at a price -- as the tragedy in Rana Plaza makes brutally clear. And even though it seems like the next horrible tragedy is inevitable -- or perhaps, literally, around the corner -- it's worth recalling the day of the collapse. In fact, it illuminates much of what is broken about Bangladesh today.

On April 23, the day before it collapsed, cracks appeared on a pillar in the rear of one of the five factories in the complex, located in an industrial satellite town on the outskirts of Dhaka. The factories were shuttered by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association for the afternoon. By the next morning, however, factory bosses demanded that workers return to their sewing machines. The shops and a bank that were housed in the front of the complex remained closed for fear that the building was structurally unsound.

"We went to work with fear in us that morning," said Arif Hussein, who used to be a finishing manager at New Wave Bottoms, a factory on the fourth floor of the complex that supplied various Western retail companies. Just before 9 a.m., as Arif was starting his day, he felt the 315,000-square-foot complex begin to give way. Arif rallied the colleagues nearest him and ran, managing to escape out the front of the building. The scene was utter chaos, he said.

Many were not so lucky. As the day wore on, rescue workers managed to pull hundreds of bodies from the wreckage. Local volunteers stood on piles of sweaters destined for Western retail outlets -- many with price tags already affixed -- and tugged at the crumpled concrete. From inside the collapsed building, the limbs of crushed workers protruded from between the pancaked floors.

As the frantic rescue effort unfolded outside, Sohel Rana, the 30-year-old owner of the complex, remained trapped in his office in the building's basement. The story of how he got out is in many ways the story of how the country got into this mess.

An exemplar of the so-called "Bangladeshi dream," Rana owned a slew of buildings on land that many allege he had stolen. A member of the youth wing of the ruling Awami League -- which effectively functioned as muscle for the parent organization -- he had political connections that allowed him to avoid taxes, to acquire land through shady deals, and, fatefully, to ignore building inspectors. Rana's principle source of power, though, was apparently his connection to Murad Jang, the local member of Parliament, for whom he mobilized funds and people.

"Rana was Murad Jang's right-hand man," explained Omar Chowdhury, owner of Syntex Knitwear Ltd., another garment manufacturer.

Armed with Murad's patronage, Rana managed to add additional floors to the flimsy concrete and steel building -- designed to support apartments, not industrial equipment -- and avoid paying taxes on four of its nine stories, according to Iqbal Hossein, a local businessman whose wife works in the local tax office.

"Nothing moves in Savar without Murad Jang giving consent," explained Reswan Selim, owner of anther garment manufacturer in the area.

Trapped beneath the building, Rana called the only man he could count on. By noon, three hours after the building started to give way, Murad's men had rescued Rana from his office. Soon he was on the run, heading initially to a friend's flat in Dhaka with the assistance of the member of Parliamen. When the scale of the tragedy became apparent, however, authorities apprehended him near the border with India.

I found Murad Jang standing amid emergency services and rescuers on April 26. When asked who was responsible for the disaster, he replied, "It was a natural disaster." That is how the interview ended. One question, one answer.

Inside what remained of the building were labels reading "Joe Fresh for JC Penney" laying near a decomposing corpse, crushed along with sewing machines. As with many of the brands seen scattered in the rubble, Canada's Joe Fresh is struggling financially. The company recently signed a deal with JC Penney in an attempt to stimulate business; sourcing in Bangladesh, where wages are among the lowest on the planet, was another way to boost profit margins.

Workers had little choice but to go to work in Rana Plaza on the morning of April 24, according to Iqbal. Without work they would have gone hungry. Labor organizing is strongly discouraged in Bangladesh and the subject of much international criticism. The U.S. trade representative, for example, recently submitted a set of queries to Bangladesh's Ministry of Commerce regarding labor standards. There is also a chance the country could lose its preferential access to the U.S. market.

Factories, meanwhile, are barely regulated in Bangladesh -- and what regulations exist are routinely flouted. Building inspectors, moreover, are understaffed and overworked. "We need an inspection that deserves to be called an inspection," said Albrecht Conze, the German ambassador in Dhaka. "Nineteen people [inspectors in the country] without motorbikes for more than 4,000 factories is simply unacceptable."

Even with limited inspection, however, it is doubtful that politically connected bosses like Rana would pay much heed to bureaucrats. Bangladesh is a deeply feudal society; systems of state or governance have little sway over powerful men and families. As a result, the country has one of the lowest tax bases as a percentage of GDP in the world.

"The sad part is there are many Rana Plazas in Bangladesh. The political situation in the country gives rise to such monsters," said Reswan Selim, a boss of another garment manufacturer. Even the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, has publicly admitted that 90 percent of the country's industrial building stock may be noncompliant.

The tragedy, then, is not just the more than 900 people who perished in the disaster. It is that an industry that Bangladesh badly needs is being jeopardized by a political system run amok -- one that's built on patronage and unable to ensure basic worker safety standards. And this government's failure to protect its own people is a tragedy that will forever be linked to the stench of death in Savar.