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May 14, 2019

In crisis, some promise and hope


May 14, 2019

What lies buried beneath the rubble of broken PTI promises and the shattered hopes and aspirations of quick-fix believers in Imran Khan? Promise and hope.

First, some balm for the despair. Sadly, there can be no quick fixes. There never are. Still, it is important to remember that the world is not ending because a new IMF programme has been agreed. The world did not end on November 24, 2008, when the PPP-led coalition signed off on an IMF Standby Arrangement, and it did not end on September 4, 2013, when the PML-N government signed off on an Extended Fund Facility. Since 1990, Pakistan has signed up to ten other IMF programmes. Since then, the country has tested nuclear weapons, had one military coup, enacted constitutional reforms through the 18th Amendment that everyone used to say would never happen, and through it all became the only country to win a post-9/11 counter-insurgency and counterterrorism war.

One of the reasons for Pakistan’s remarkable buoyancy is also one of the reasons for the country’s perpetual return to crisis. Pakistan is located at a geographic crossroads that make it both the subject of great speculative economic hope, and the victim of legitimate security paranoia.

Crisis is upon Pakistan again – GDP growth is slowing down, inflation is going to rise, and the negativity of a young population being poorly served by a system designed only to benefit the already-rich is going to threaten to tear this country’s already fragile equilibrium apart. Terrorism, both from foreign-funded terrorists leveraging ethnic identity and home-grown Daesh and pseudo-Daesh extremists across the urban landscape, will attempt to dismantle morale within the police, the intelligence services, and among paramilitary and military troops. To top it off, a clumsy and unsustainable effort to silence dissent, and lock up all potent political opposition, will spur besieged mainstream opposition parties to adopt an ever more shrill political discourse. But taken together or taken separately, none of these challenges has checkmated Pakistani survivability and resilience before.

Remember, Pakistan has seen worse horror films. In 2008, under the PPP-coalition government, inflation topped 20 percent (the first and only time it topped 20 percent since the post-1971 economic crisis of the mid-1970s). Complicating that government’s efforts to manage the crisis? A full-scale terrorist insurgency that began in the summer of 2007 and beheaded the PPP in December that year before engulfing the entire country in 2008 and 2009 (the worst year of terrorist violence Pakistan ever saw, and indeed among the worst any country ever saw). The PML-N government that was elected in 2013 managed to suppress inflation, after it topped out in late 2013 at above 10 percent, but it also waffled on the question of terrorism until the Peshawar APS massacre on December 16, 2014. As late as the spring of 2014, political leaders across the spectrum, including then PM Nawaz Sharif, and now PM Imran Khan, thought they could talk to the TTP. It is easy to forget now because the Pakistan Army went out and won the war – but the journey here has been bloody and expensive. It is the blood and treasure that were shed on this path that makes a return to crisis such an epic fail for Pakistan.

Ideally, the PTI era in 2018 should have been one of consolidating the gains from the previous decade of democratic governance and strong economic growth. Instead, clumsy political engineering, myopic and selfish leadership from Nawaz Sharif, and a mind-numbingly ill-prepared (and vindictive) PM Khan have conspired to strip away many of Pakistan’s advantages at a crucial time for the country and the region. Perhaps worse than all this has been the security infrastructure’s inability to adequately assess the cost of continued failure to address international concerns about various non-state actors such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad and Haqqani Network.

Despite all this, somehow, Pakistan is in a unique position to help forge a generational moment that could initiate and sustain a long spell of peace and stability for the region. If this hope and promise can be actualized, Pakistan’s current leaders, (including members of the political opposition), will have achieved something few have ever even had the chance to.

Let’s first define what the promise and the hope really is. It is the possibility of a sustained peace and stability between Pakistan, and two of its most vital neighbours: Afghanistan and India.

Afghanistan is entering a crucial phase in its history. Despite the shrill rhetoric from many Afghans, the facts have always been clear: the destinies of Pakistan and Afghanistan are intertwined. There is much bitterness on both sides of the border separating these two great nations – but there is also much sharing of the burden. For 40 years, the people of both countries have suffered together. If the Zalmay Khalilzad brokered peace plan can deliver even a few months long window of peace in late 2019 and into 2020, it will set the stage for a longer, more sustainable peace in the region.

Putting the Taliban on a table with Khalilzad was the easy part for Pakistan. The harder part is coming. Pakistan will have to do two things to enable a longer-lasting peace in Afghanistan. The first is to enable economic activity between Afghanistan and all other nations (including Pakistan), and the second is to respond positively to legitimate and genuine dissent at home, whilst finding ways to ignore provocative sloganeering that is designed largely to elicit reactions and disrupt progress in the districts formerly known as Fata.

For the first part, ie the spurring of economic activity, Pakistan will need to open up trade routes for Afghanistan, including easier access to the port in Karachi for Afghan goods, and goods headed to Afghanistan. It will also need to find a way to enable trade between India and Afghanistan through the trucking routes via Pakistani territory that are currently restricted. For the second part, ie responsiveness to legitimate dissent in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s new districts, Pakistan needs to adopt the PM Khan posture of compassion, consideration and embrace of tribal youth – including dramatic public-sector spending programmes in all seven districts. Concurrently, the state needs to eschew aggression and defensiveness. Few things are as well-integrated into the soul and fabric of Pakistan as Pakthun identity; there is no need to undermine it with clumsy attempts to bully dissenting voices into submission.

India too is evolving in fascinating ways. Important voices on India believe that some of the foundational norms of post-British Nehruvian India are collapsing, and in their stead a new, muscular, religiously-assertive Hindu India has emerged. Notwithstanding the convulsions of self-satisfaction that many Pakistani nationalists (perhaps including this writer) may feel, it is important to properly contextualize this change in India’s ethos.

The Balakot attack by India should have prompted three reactions in Pakistan. The first should have been elation at the remarkable capacity of the Pakistani system – including its military and polity – to respond to such brazen aggression. This elation was palpable after the capture of an Indian fighter pilot. The second should have been introspection at the behaviour of the international order immediately following the Balakot attack. This introspection was visible, but it was short lived (the UNSC 1267 committee’s listing of Masood Azhar should have renewed its urgency). The third should have been an historic effort to establish a new set of protocols in the relationship with India that essentially prevents anything like Balakot from happening ever again – not out of fear of India, but out of confidence in the demonstrable capacity to resist, and the knowledge that any future conflict could spin much further along the path of escalation than Balakot did, especially given the fabric of this new India.

This last one – a historic effort to establish a new set of norms with India – was not possible because of the timing of the Balakot attack. It came weeks before the Indian general election. Next week, the elections end, and India will have a newly-elected government.

Ramazan is the month of miracles. Amidst the gloom of Pakistan’s return to crisis, there shines the hope that a responsible handling of relations with Afghanistan and with India may yield a historic peace and stability. Pakistan has survived crises in much worse conditions than today. The promise and the hope now is that those conditions themselves can be made much better.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.