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September 21, 2016

No storm in a tea cup


September 21, 2016

Here’s a health check on the current state of affairs in Pakistan: our domestic politics are riven with no political consensus on how to steer the ship of state forward. Beset with terrorism, our domestic security remains vulnerable, preventing the creation of a positive economic climate and continuing to encourage the flight of human capital from the country.

Our foreign policy failures are threatening to mushroom into an existential crisis as we risk being labelled a pariah state. And two years from the next general elections we have nothing but poor performance on the economic front to showcase, as we exit the IMF programme and prepare to boldy go where we have never gone before.

Domestic politics follow the beaten track of zero sum engagement between the incumbent PML-N and the opposition political parties. The ritual mud-slinging, name calling, walk-outs from parliament and thumb twiddling on key issues appear to follow a tried and tested strategy of ensuring that the status quo endures, a convenient modus vivendi for all actors in the chess game of Pakistan’s parliamentary politics, with the national power grab at the end of the incumbent PML-N’s term in power, if not sooner, being its sole end.

Meanwhile the business of government – which should logically ensure attention to key areas such as building centre-province relations, education investment and reform, judicial reform, taxation reform, the upgrading of public health facilities and outreach, upgrading the country’s power infrastructure, privatising sick industrial units and research and development – is instead focused on retaining political power by sidestepping reform, engaging in an uneasy tug of war with the establishment over internal security and foreign policy, and investing in projects that afford maximum window dressing but minimal economic progress.

As the political counter-weight, the opposition parties – a motley crew of divided, power hungry hecklers with a proclivity to operate on the sidelines of the political landscape – are on any given Sunday as effective as the barricades on Constitution Avenue, lacking any mature political resolve or acumen, that would ensure meaningful political debate and push government to legislate on issues that really matter. In their defence, some may argue that on most days they also face the reality and the spectre of being bullied and neutered into supplication by an establishment that aims to paralyse political activity in a bid to establish a covert (or perhaps overt?) national hegemon.

This argument may have some substance, but the conditions that have contributed to the present purge of the MQM or the rout of the PPP and the ANP have as much to do with these parties’ track records of ham-fisted governance, an obstinate adherence to dynastic politics, their unflinching support for backward feudal hegemonies and for promoting the politics of terror and gang warfare.

Domestic security is only slightly less fragile than it was in the wake of the Peshawar APS attack. We have endured the Quetta carnage and the Mohmand blast just recently after all, and the evidence on the implementation of the National Action Plan is abysmal, pointing to nothing more than pussy-footing by the government and indeed all political stakeholders. A coordinated campaign to root out domestic terror, beginning with educational reform, the banning of controversial madressahs, the severing of all funding pipelines to the identified bastions of terror and the immediate appreshension of key agents of terror who roam the country freely, together with meaningful and honest regional security cooperation and engagement with Afghanistan and India, appears to be a lot of wishful thinking.

Which brings us to regional affairs. For India, we are still the principal accused in the Mumbai and Pathankot attacks, as well as the mischief mongers in the attack on the Indian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif in January; and if that wasn’t enough, we now have Uri to defend our name against. Domestic pressure on Modi is escalating as his nationalist votebank accuse him of not being stern enough with Pakistan.

The accusations by the Indian foriegn office spokesperson in the wake of Uri and Modi’s hints that we are regional sponsors of terrorism – an accusation also supported by Ashraf Ghani in the wake of increased terrorism in Afghanistan – do not bode well for Pakistan.

Our principal ally in the war against regional and domestic terror is now a strategic partner with India, has vested interests in Afghanistan and also appears to be tired of, what it regards as Pakistan’s jiggery-pokery in combating terrorism. Our diplomatic response in the form of denial on the one hand and raising our pitch to win the shouting match with India, on the other, is also not going to be of any utility.

So far the mood in India is that of exercising strategic restraint to win a larger diplomatic vicotry: India will now escalate efforts to ensure sanctions are imposed on Pakistan and from the news in the foreign press that’s a suggestion, the US may finally be willing to consider.

In the window of time we have till the conclusion of the US presidential elections there is much thinking to do. The new president, Democrat or Republican, may come with a very different plan for dealing with Pakistan considering there is consensus among policymakers in the US that it should revert to ‘offshore balancing’ – working through sanctions and regional actors to deal with troublesome states.

Therefore, we have to come clean on the Haqqani Network and proactively engage with Afghanistan to build an atmosphere of trust, which ensures we also have intelligence to prevent the Afghan Taliban from inflicting terror attacks in Pakistan from across the border. We also have to recognise and diplomatically urge India to also accept that in the race to secure Kashmir there is no finish line in sight for either country.

A sound recommendation on the issue came from ex-president Musharraf who advocated demilitarisation, free movement of people, free economic access to both sides and greater autonomy for the people of Kashmir, with minimal meddling by India and Pakistan.

Finally we must also recognise that economic cooperation with China, presented as the panacea for all regional and domestic challenges, is a chimera that will neither allow us to weather Indian and Afghani bellicosity, nor serve as a credible bulwark from the possibly punitive measures the international community may resort to in the future. Going it alone in the next decade, minus the IMF bail-out option, will require sound planning and regional security and economic cooperation.

In the meanwhile, if we are able to weather the diplomatic storm that appears to be brewing in the wake of Uri, we may also want to address the staggering $70 billion of external debt that we have accumulated, which, given the significant decline in exports, foreign remittances and foreign direct investment, and with no tangible reforms in the areas of power distribution, sick unit privatisation or tax collection, is going to be no mean feat.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @kmushir