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Zero-gravity decision making

For longer than one can remember, one of the primary criticisms of the House of Sharif is that it is a decision-making apex that is extremely complex, and almost entirely lacking in transparency.

Complicating this well-earned reputation is the fact that in Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s cabinet, only a select few loyalists ever get to occupy decision-making positions. And within those positions themselves, there is also hierarchy that is reasonably unpredictable and opaque.

The prime minister is hardly unique in this regard. The peri-urban legend in Islamabad was that President Asif Ali Zardari often relied on a sacrificial ritual as an informant of his own decision-making. And God only knows what happens when the MQM’s Raabta Committee makes a ‘decision’. Pakistani political organisations and leaders are not exactly a study in predictable and rational command and control systems.

Yet something about the way in which PM Sharif has been making decisions begs serious questions. Arguably, opaque and incomprehensible decision-making by the current prime minister comes at a cost that may altogether be beyond the capacity of Pakistan to bear. Let’s consider the range of challenges that the PM faces on a day-to-day basis.

The TTP has made the strategic decision to essentially go for the kill, rather than get bogged down in talks, essentially because of the signals that such weak and unpredictable decision-making sends. The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which has been on a Shia killing rampage for over two years, obviously feels little restraint in going after Hazaras in particular, over and over and over again.

The economy may not teeter as it did when former prime minister Raja Parvez Ashraf was busy suffocating it with a high volume of low-grade rent seeking. Yet, the economy is at the risk of being swallowed whole through a low volume of high-grade cronyism and opacity – especially in matters of the privatisation of assets belonging to the Pakistani taxpayer.

To be fair, and to PM Sharif’s credit, there is more vitality in the country’s energy policy, and there is certainly important and refreshing clarity on foreign policy, particularly as it relates to Afghanistan and India. Yet even in these areas, some of the decisions the prime pinister has made, (and some that he startlingly has not) beggar belief.

Let us begin with foreign policy. Or rather with Sartaj Aziz. Here is as good and loyal a House of Sharif adviser as they come (and competent to boot). What is he doing as both National Security Adviser and Foreign Policy Adviser? If the rumour mill in Islamabad is to believed, he is wondering why he isn’t president. But let’s leave the poor presidency alone – the new president is already burdened with a role far beyond his stature; he doesn’t need snipes from the commentariat to add to his stresses.

The insult to Sartaj Aziz’s injury of course is that another highly competent Sharif loyalist, the excellent Tariq Fatemi, has been placed at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by the prime minister. If ever there have been two good men put in an impossible position, it is here and now, and it is Aziz and Fatemi.

With all that grey matter at his disposal, one would have expected a stellar performance from the PM on managing foreign affairs. Again, to be fair, on the policy side, PM Sharif has demonstrated remarkable wisdom and resolve on Afghanistan and India. No doubt, Messrs Aziz and Fatemi can take some credit for this. But to really deliver on the promise of this wisdom and resolve, the PM needs a well-oiled foreign policy machine. Let’s consider the evidence.

When it came to selecting a foreign secretary, a disastrous and embarrassing process ensued. At least two exceptional officers ended up having their names circulated, one having attended farewell events in his honour, expecting to take the reigns as foreign secretary. It is a testament to the wide pool of talent in the Foreign Service that the eventual appointee, Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhary, is an exceptional officer fully capable of performing his role as foreign secretary. But Pakistan doesn’t have an infinite supply of strokes of luck. This luck will not hold forever, and in every place. Far from it.

Already, we’ve witnessed other embarrassments. A number of ambassadorial assignments have been completely fudged in this zero-gravity decision-making environment. Kamran Shafi, whatever merits there may exist to his suitability for an ambassadorial role, was put in an impossible position because of it. So too were a range of incumbent serving and former Pakistani representatives to vital locations, from Germany to India, and from the United Nations to the United Kingdom.

The fiascos in terms of ambassadorial assignments barely touch the surface of dysfunctional decision-making. The much-touted National Security Policy, which is variously located either at the Ministry of Interior, under the influence of Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan, or at the newly minted National Security Secretariat, where Mohammad Sadiq, the exceptional former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan has been made secretary.

For five years, many of us, quite rightly, savaged the incompetence and tomfoolery that proliferated in the functions of the interior ministry on Rehman Malik’s watch. But what exactly, other than partisan venom, justifies anything but a similar assessment of the current interior minister? In the energy sector, the prime minister quickly recognised the need for technical input to supplement the political savvy that his minister (in that case, the superb Khawaja Asif) brought to the table, and thus was hired Mussadiq Malik. Why wasn’t a parallel hire made for Ch Nisar, a minister in even greater need than Kh Asif?

The examples don’t end. Post-APC, the government was supposed to undertake a dialogue process with the TTP. Without prejudice to the wisdom of the APC – it was after all a representative sample of political will in the country – two questions beg answering. One, why the APC, instead of parliament? And two, who would actually lead talks with the terrorists?

Neither of those questions has been answered – which creates space for has-beens and wannabes to make all kinds of claims, mostly false. One of the more amusing among them was the sudden resurgent relevance of Maulana Samiul Haq. Haq never was the PM’s designate spokesperson for with the TTP. Nor does the current brand of the TTP, a hodgepodge of criminals, kidnappers, drug smugglers and ideological warriors, have any regard for anyone as yesterday as Haq is. But the myth has grown unchecked, particularly in the mainstream, far away from the dizzying depths of these English language columns.

More? There’s plenty more evidence of the complete absence of responsibility and seriousness with which PM Sharif has made vital human resource decisions.

My fellow Canadian, the extraordinary pilot Capt Shujaat Azeem was made aviation czar right after the PM was sworn in, to address the desperate situation of PIA. Soon afterwards, Azeem’s Canadian roots emerged. The Supreme Court summarily rid this nation of him.

The episode took hardly two month and Pakistan has been aviation-czar-less since August of 2013. PIA continues to bleed taxpayer money, and is at risk of being broken up and sold to people who are on the Sharifs’ Friends and Family calling plan.

Allegations of graft and corruption will only grow in an environment of opaque, incompetent and unpredictable decision-making. None of Pakistan’s issues are so grand as to inspire paralysis at the PM House. There is no excuse for laughable, school-boy errors and missteps at this level, at this time, in this country.

www.mosharrafzaidi.com. The writer is an analyst and commentator.

Mosharraf Zaidi, "Zero-gravity decision making," The News. 2014-01-24.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , National issues , International policy , Target killing , Decision making , Energy policy , Security policy , Taliban-Pakistan , Shia , Ch Nisar Rehman Malik , PM Nawaz Sharif , President Zardari , Sartaj Aziz , Aizaz Ahmad , Kamran Shafi , Afghanistan , Pakistan , Germany , India , MQM