Circa 2002: The Indian ministry of external affairs XP (external publicity) division carried a newspaper article in The Sunday Times of London titled ‘The British Jackal’ on its website. It profiled Omar Saeed Sheikh, the UK-born and educated Pakistani who was behind the abduction and killing of U.S.-journalist Daniel Pearl in early 2002. Sheikh also had close links to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda.
Circa 2019: Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan carried out his first cabinet reshuffle exactly eight months after he was sworn into office. Moved to the key post of interior minister, a portfolio held by Khan, was Pakistan’s former Intelligence Bureau chief (2004-08) Brigadier Ijaz Shah (retd). His link to Omar Sheikh — he’s often described as being the terrorist’s handler and one who even kept him in a safehouse before his formal arrest was announced by the Pak government.
For a Prime Minister who has been in office for just eight months, the sweeping changes made by him to his Cabinet last week were carried out for the country’s benefit as stated by Khan himself. But the reshuffle, instead of being seen as such, has thrown Khan into a political maelstrom with many, including the Opposition in Pakistan, questioning the wisdom of some of the new appointments. Shah’s appointment has especially been questioned.
While there have been several other changes in Khan’s Cabinet, it’s the appointment of Shah as interior minister and the removal of Asad Umar as finance minister that’s occupying centre-stage. Indeed, the removal of Umar and the appointment of Shah encapsulates in many ways two major problems currently being faced by Pakistan — an ailing economy and a state being seen as one that sponsors terror.
Grappling with a cash-strapped economy and dwindling forex reserves, among those that Khan decided to axe from his Cabinet was his finance minister and close ally, Asad Umar. Umar was playing the crucial role of negotiating with the IMF (International Monetary Fund) a financial bailout package worth $8 billion to get a floundering Pakistan economy back on track.
According to former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan G. Parthasarathy, what also contributed to Umar’s exit was the fact that he was having problems with Jahangir Tareen, an influential member of Khan’s party, the PTI (Pakistan Tehreek- e-Insaf).
Describing the political situation in Pakistan as being “messy”, Parthasarathy when asked if the army had a role to play in the Cabinet reshuffle remarked: “Imran Khan was, is and will remain a creature and protege of the army. The basic fact we need to remember is that he came to power only with the army’s backing.”
The Pakistan PM did offer Umar the less high profile energy portfolio but he decided against remaining in the Cabinet. In a growing sign of desperation over Pakistan’s dire economic condition, Khan has given the finance portfolio to Abdul Hafeez Shaikh.
A noted economist who has worked with the World Bank, Shaikh has been appointed adviser to the PM on finance, revenue and economic affairs. He’s now tasked with the challenge of bringing Pakistan’s economy back from the brink.
For the Imran Khan government, the going is unlikely to be easy as Pakistan has also been facing the heat from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) for its failure to act on the terror front. The possibility of economic sanctions by FATF looms large and for an economy on the brink of collapse this doesn’t bode well.
While Islamabad is hoping to escape being blacklisted by the FATF later this year, New Delhi is believed to be lobbying with the IMF to not extend any bailout to Pakistan as it’s already in the grey list. G. Parthasarathy said while the FATF will not impose economic sanctions on Pakistan, “it will squeeze them and keep them on a tight leash”.
Under pressure to act on the terror front, the appointment of Shah as Pakistan’s new interior minister has taken most by surprise as he was said to have terror links. Shah, who during his career military career also served as ISI (Inter Services Intelligence) head in Punjab, seems to be the man for all seasons, having at various times enjoyed the confidence of different Pakistani leaders. “He was a Musharraf favourite who learned to move dexterously in the corridors of power,” observed Parthasarathy.
Tilak Devasher, former special secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat of the Indian government noted, “Shah has been close to Nawaz Sharif and Musharraf. So much for Imran Khan’s ‘Naya Pakistan’.”
During General Musharraf’s rule, the former spook was his close confidant with the military ruler even appointing him to head Pakistan’s intelligence agency in 2004, a position he held until 2008. Said to have had links with terror outfits, Shah is even accused of sheltering bin Laden in Abbottabad in Pakistan after 9/11. He is also the man named by the late PM Benazir Bhutto as the one she feared might get her killed.
Devasher who has authored the book Pakistan: Courting the Abyss described the choice of Shah as surprising given that he was a trusted ally of General Musharraf, a dictator. “It’s surprising that someone who was close to Imran Khan’s rival is now a part of his government,” remarked Devasher.
He also noted that there had been speculation in Pakistan that Shah would be appointed Pakistan’s National Security Adviser but this didn’t happen.
Appointed the parliamentary affairs minister in Pakistan’s federal cabinet just last month, Shah is now heading a key ministry which was held by the PM himself until now. But his past as also the Opposition PPP (Pakistan People’s Party) is nipping at his heels as is evident from reports in the Pakistani media.
Yet another high profile minister, Fawad Chaudhury, often seen on Indian TV channels speaking on behalf of the Pak government, has had his information portfolio snatched away from him. He’s been given the not so prominent post of heading the science and technology ministry.
Harking back to his cricketing days, Khan, while addressing a rally in Orakzai in Pakistan’s northwest after the cabinet reshuffle said he had changed the batting order for Pakistan’s benefit. Whether it will help him win the match is still to be seen.
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