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December 31, 2019

Five opportunities for 2020


December 31, 2019

As 2019 ends today, there will be no shortage of lamentations about how difficult a year it was. It was brutal, indeed.

Instead of regurgitating the banality of the unmet challenges that Pakistan’s leaders dealt with in the last twelve months, perhaps we should be examining the future and what openings and avenues it offers. If it is true that there is crisis everywhere, then it is also true that opportunities abound.

There are five opportunities available to Pakistan and its leaders for transformational change in the year 2020: Afghanistan, India, the economy, digitalization, and reform. Let us take stock of what is required to convert the latent hope these opportunities represent into the kinetic outcomes they can become.

The first is a meaningful end to the forty-year conflict in Afghanistan, or what we might call the bounty of peace. No country has greater stakes in an end to Afghanistan’s forty-year war than Pakistan. Since 1979, Afghans have had to endure three generations of war. In each of these three wars, Pakistan has had to choose sides, and in the process become a permanent villain, for Afghans themselves, for the principal protagonists in any given war, and most importantly, for a large segment of Pakistanis that have been affected by this four decade long nightmare.

A peaceful Afghanistan has an immediate positive impact on Pakistan, in terms of improved trade and commerce, and improved security in the newly merged districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In the medium term, it also has the potential to limit the ability of Pakistan’s adversaries to use Afghans and Afghan soil for terrorist activities aimed at Pakistan.

Perhaps most importantly, a settled, peaceful and stable Afghanistan becomes a viable connector for Pakistan with the rest of Central Asia, thereby enabling the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to become a truly strategic initiative that lubricates Pakistan’s centrality to improved trade and commerce for not only Afghanistan, but also Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. A peaceful Afghanistan puts Pakistan at the center of the economic potential of the entire CAREC region and makes the country a plug-and-play essential for China, the MENA region, and Central Asia. Best of all, a peaceful and stable Afghanistan helps Pakistan de-hyphenate its regional economic potential from India.

How can Pakistan do its part to ensure peace in Afghanistan, for its own benefit? Pakistan’s leaders need to recognize that a whole-of-government approach to exploiting the opportunity for permanent peace in Afghanistan is more likely to succeed than a security-heavy approach – there is forty years of evidence to support this assertion. Afghans may not all feel a sense of fraternity with Pakistan, and Pakistanis, but all Afghans, like all people everywhere, love GDP growth, jobs, and wealth. The defining core of the Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship needs to shift, from insecurity to wealth.

This requires three important tweaks. The first is to immediately raise the status of the Pakistan Embassy in Kabul, which has not had adequate representation since Mohammad Sadiq was last ambassador in 2013. The second is the appointment of a high-level commission, including politicians from the ANP, the PkMAP, the JUI-F, the JI, and elected leaders from the tribal areas, to help sustain dialogue with Afghan leaders on issues ranging from border controls, a visa regime, migration and cross border mobility management for ‘refugees’, and perhaps most importantly on the costs that both countries endure due to the toxic and malign impact of India’s very successful efforts to poison the relationship over the past decade and a half.

The third is to establish a minimum baseline of visa issuance, and trade volume between the two countries that Pakistan commits itself to, and that is not disrupted every time there is a minor crisis. Punishing ordinary Afghans (and Pakistanis) for security breaches, or irresponsible behaviour by leaders in Kabul is not the behaviour of winners but of losers. Pakistan must stop losing in Afghanistan. And 2020 is its best chance in forty years to make the shift.

The second opportunity for 2020 is a new compact between Pakistan and India, or what we might call a resetting of the norms in South Asia. India’s need to demonstrate belligerence for its domestic audience has now grown into a monster with no end in sight. A limited conventional conflict seems almost assured in 2020, unless India’s leaders feel that they can walk back the disastrous decisions to lockdown Kashmir on August 5, and to institutionalize Islamophobic tropes through the new Citizenship Amendment Act and associated NRC.

Absent an attack by India, Pakistan’s leaders must rigorously explore opportunities to engage with India’s leaders to help reduce tensions. But given the failure of overtures made in 2019, Pakistan must also be prepared to defend the country, and to do so in a manner that exacts a high cost on India. Without an assertion of Pakistan’s conventional capability to significantly disrupt normalcy in India, India’s leaders may continue to use Pakistan as a convenient patsy where they can park their various failures. Regardless of how it is achieved, dialogue between Pakistan and India is inevitable; the sooner it takes place, the better it will be for both countries.

The third is the achievement of a new fiscal order in the country, in which there is an improved equilibrium between macroeconomic stability (or the things that matter to bankers, wealthy individuals and families, and the international system) and microeconomic wellbeing (or the things that matter to poor labourers, middle class teachers, rural farmers, and single mothers working multiple jobs). Among other things, this will require meeting revenue targets for fiscal year 2019-2020 through a more robust pursuit of the wealthy, and a more careful protection of the vulnerable.

The fourth is sustainability and digitalization, or the chance to leapfrog above and beyond the stages of dirty development that many already advanced economies have had to endure. With the appointment of a digital czar in Tania Aidrus, the country has a chance to consolidate many ‘failures’ into one coherent and strategic national push for 21st century-proofing a wide array of industries and practices, from procurement to taxation, from construction materials to banking and finance, and from meat consumption to electricity generation – few countries are as large and as well-suited for a digital revolution as Pakistan.

The fifth grand opportunity in 2020 is the one opportunity that is constantly knocking, and knocks louder and prouder than ever on New Year’s Eve 2020: a reform agenda necessary to re-equip the Islamic Republic with the purpose, and meaning it was conceived with, to deliver the chance at a better life for all Pakistani citizens – and it requires wide-scale administrative and structural reform, including a wholesale reset of the civil services, and the judiciary. Traditional approaches have failed and are increasingly making the system more vulnerable to the whims of individuals, not less. This failure to reform is rooted in an absence of a moral center to the wider reform conversation. Over 110 million Pakistanis are below the age of 24. Purposelessness, and an absence of connectivity to their needs and aspirations is a fatal flaw in any aspect of public policy – but especially in reform.

The year 2020 can be a portal to a new kind of purpose-driven conversation about all of the opportunities that lie before this glorious country and its amazing people; we should all commit to an effort to help sustain that conversation.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.