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March 27, 2018

Pakistan can do better – together


March 27, 2018

As we approach the end of the first quarter of 2018, three interconnected challenges face Pakistan. The direction of travel on each front is not encouraging. How the country tackles these three challenges will be instrumental in deciding whether the country can build on the momentum provided by improved security and greater economic confidence over the last five years.

The first is how the Pakistani state deals with the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement. The second is the growing excess in how the civil-military disequilibrium is manifest. The third is the degree of autonomy and sovereignty that is bequeathed to the next elected government, given the various concurrent international pressures the country faces.

The Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement first. In 2014, Pakistan stepped on the gas in dealing with a decades-long problem in North Waziristan. The army received well-deserved acclaim for the coherence, speed and force of its kinetic actions from June 2014 onwards. Yet, here we are, less than four years later, instead of a sea of contentment, young men and women from Waziristan and beyond are mobilising in an unprecedented wave of identity assertion under the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, claiming victimisation not only by the terrorists, but also by the manner in which Fata and the wider arena affected by the conflict have been dealt with by the security forces.

This should worry Pakistanis at three levels. First, it reflects the inability of state and society to have identified and addressed the concerns of people like Manzoor Pashteen, and other affectees of the conflicts in the tribal areas in a timely fashion. Second, it reflects a divide between the army, whose soldiers and spies have fought and died for the security of all Pakistanis (especially those in the tribal areas), and many young Pakhtuns, who clearly feel that this fight has come at an unbearably high cost for them. Third, it reflects an aspect of counter-insurgency challenge that has been the bane of the American projects in both Iraq and Afghanistan – a capacity to ‘clear’ and ‘hold’ territory, but a failure to ‘build’. Pakistan’s case is more serious because it is not about thousands of miles from home as it is for the Americans, but about what happens inside our very home. It is long term and sustained clumsiness and strategic incoherence that have produced the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement.

A number of positive steps have thus far been taken by the military in its response to the PTM, including the termination of the need for Watan cards, an improved checkpoint regime in Swat, and the return of many men that had been reported missing. But these steps are also accompanied by a wider discomfort and bewilderment among the environs of the twin cities. Strategy continues to be designed Pakistan in the same way it has been since the late 1970s – almost purely by army officers. The question then is if new ideas will be employed in tackling the legitimate challenges that the PTM poses to decision-makers. The sad fact has been that, instead of driving the civilian leadership and the army high command closer, new and complex political phenomena like the PTM tend to drive them further apart.

This is particularly worrisome given the context of the growing extremity of civ-mil disequilibrium. On the one hand, we have the PML-N-driven narrative of political victimisation that seems to target the Supreme Court, but is actually about the various beefs Nawaz Sharif has with the army. On the other, we have what has been described as the Bajwa Doctrine. The shrillness of the Sharif camp, as it stares an unfriendly set of legal outcomes in the face, has been met met not only with frequent assertions of independence by the superior judiciary, but now also by the more engaged army leadership.

It is unlikely that ordinary voters care very much about the inter-institutional competitive fires that seem to be burning within the largest political party in the country, within the Supreme Court, or at the GHQ. But media interactions that generate both off-the-record chatter in Islamabad, and reportage from across the spectrum by some of the most senior and respected journalists in the country has had a spectacular impact on the national discourse: it has helped harden positions in both camps.

Noon League sympathetic democrats, including those that don’t like Nawaz Sharif, but like his disqualification even less, have been worked into a frenzy by the wide array of interests outside job description that the army leadership spoke about in a recent press interaction. National security uber-hawks, who already believe that the armed forces have been too passive over the last decade, in terms of asserting authority over foreign and domestic affairs, are delighted on the other hand. The so-called Bajwa Doctrine speaks to the full spectrum of concerns that hyper-nationalists, hawks, and even liberals partial to a strong central state, have about the direction of the country.

Between these relative poles of the spectrum lies a Supreme Court that seems to be wrestling with the degree of assertiveness that is appropriate for it, and a number of political parties that are in a state of flux – from the PPP which is manoeuvring for a better showing than the beating it took in 2013 in Punjab, to the PTI which needs a renewal of energy from the top of the party if it is to have a real chance at breaking through the fifty-seat ceiling within which it remained stuck in 2013, to the fragments of the MQM strewn all across Karachi (and abroad), to the religious parties have reassembled as a grand alliance despite having little common ground. We know, of course, that some ‘parties’ pose a more serious challenge to the country than others.

This brings us to the final and perhaps most serious area of concern: the degree of autonomy and sovereignty that this government will pass onto the next. The context for this goes beyond the impact of the recent FATF grey listing, which is a penalty imposed by the US for UNSC Resolution 1267 terror group listings related quarrels with Pakistan. It is also a set of economic circumstances in which it seems ever more likely that Pakistan is gearing up to seek yet another bailout from either a friendly country or the IMF, or in due course, both.

Among Pakistan’s key economic vulnerabilities is its sustained incapacity to pay for things in US dollars. Though foreign remittances have traditionally helped bridge an unhealthy trade deficit, import bills have been sky rocketing, and export receipts have not. This leaves Pakistan short of US dollars. This vulnerability is not a secret. With relations with the US in a state of permanent decline, Pakistan’s wager on China is a decidedly good one, but no country can underwrite a suicidal ally. The two most explicit pillars of Chinese advice to Pakistan over the last several years have remain unchanged: one, increase trade with India, and two, do not ruin relations with America. China itself does the same, maintaining its litany of disputes with India and America, but trading up a storm with both.

Sadly, Pakistan has always taken Chinese money with greater keenness and vigour than it takes Chinese advice. The cost of this long-standing habit is the intergenerational shrinking of Pakistani sovereignty. Pakistanis that habitually call other countries names for pursuing their national interest with respect to Pakistan must remember that it is not those countries that seek Pakistan to bail it out repeatedly: it is Pakistan that seeks their bailouts.

‘Mujhay kiyoun nikaala’, ‘Baba Rehmata’ and the ‘doctrine’ wallahs would all explain the convergence of these challenges as the fault of the other. The truth is that it has been and remains a team effort. Pakistan’s institutions are meant to protect and enrich the Pakistani people. It is a wholly unseemly sight to watch them fight it out instead, because that makes Pakistanis more vulnerable. All three are correct to identify a crisis in the country, and all three misdiagnose the cause by pointing fingers at others. Pakistan can do better – together.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.

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