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January 5, 2021

A prayer for 2021

Opinion

January 5, 2021

The writer is an analyst and commentator.

The obvious challenges of 2021 don’t merit a lot of repetition. Inflation slowing and exports rising are good news as we begin the new year, but a robust economic recovery is not yet achieved. The economy has to exceed, by leaps and bounds, all forecasts. Otherwise, either domestically or internationally or both – Pakistan will be squeezed in a manner not experienced since 2011. But, make no mistake, a squeeze is coming.

The pressure on the country is going to come on the economic front, from obvious places like the IMF programme, the FATF review in February, loan repayments to the Gulf countries, and increased Chinese fatigue with the inanities of Pakistan’s domestic disputes. European and American confidence in a norms-based discrimination against Pakistan will rise with the swearing in of President Joe Biden. It won’t matter how brutal and oppressive India is, or how much of a carte blanche the West affords its wild behaviour, at home and abroad. Pakistan’s vastly diminished capacity to conduct 21st century diplomacy will be exposed in 2021 in ways that have not been invented yet. It will be painful. And at its heart will be the enduring economic weakness that handcuffs the country.

Pressure will also come from some less obvious places, where the squeeze will sneak up on Pakistan, and bite it. Domestic political instability that is treated as daily evening news entertainment has a cost. Count the factors. The troll-first, troll-last and troll-at-all-costs approach of Prime Minister Imran Khan. The helplessness of the military brass at a runaway national discourse. The cavalier attitude that Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz Sharif have taken to reclaiming their power. The behind-the-scenes machinations that the PPP thinks it is capable of managing seamlessly. The silencing of dissent in the press. The neutering of Karachi’s political realities. The violence in Balochistan and the demonizing of peripheral voices that seek to argue for their share of the pie within the bounds of the constitution and a framework of fundamental rights. The suppression of hard-core right-wing conspiracy driven narratives, and the instrumentalization of these narratives for political ends. The impact of the August 5 annexation of Kashmir by India.

The universe is bound to a degree of Newtonian equilibrium. The holes being plugged with the makeshift craftsmanship that is the bread and butter of Pakistan’s vast civil and military establishment, they cannot fix or heal any wounds. They can only stop the bleeding. For short periods of time. Maybe. The body is permanently in the Emergency Room. Which one of the holes will burst forth and cause a flood too strong and too rich to manage? No one knows. But the levels of risk being run through a synthetic, rather than organic, political process are off the charts. And the only way to manage organic political processes is through organic politics.

The pressure from the right? Or the East? That is India. The domestic and foreign ambitions of India’s new ruling elite are so deeply embedded in right-wing extremism that there is little to no grounds for Pakistan to attempt any kind of détente with India. The result is exactly what the right-wing extremist leadership of India wants: a permanently sort-of-hot-border with Pakistan, and a permanent state of alert in Pakistan. The prize for India is to convert Pakistan into the boy that cried wolf. The great advantage that India has is two-pronged.

First, most Western governments are largely gutless and have reprehensible double standards when it comes to India and Pakistan – some of this is long-embedded Islamophobia, and some is a genuine calculation of economic interests. Second, Pakistani leaders have verbal diarrhoea. Ill-disciplined, self-contradictory, and off-message, Pakistan is incapable of coherently framing the multi-faceted attacks India is conducting against Pakistan. India has attacked Pakistan through Afghanistan (especially through funding the TTP), through Iran (as manifest in the Kulbhushan Jhadav case), through the LOC (with constant attacks on Pakistani civilians), through constant suppression and brutality in Occupied Kashmir (especially after August 5), through constant allusions to the “Pakistaniness” of its Muslim citizens, through foreign information operations (such as what has been revealed by recent EU Disinfo Labs reports) and through the exploitation of domestic cleavages – such as India’s official endorsement of separatism and terror in Pakistan’s Baloch belt.

Despite all this, India continues to be given a free hand by its enablers and supporters in the West – be they conservatives like Trump and Johnson, or liberals like Macron and, as we will soon learn, Biden. In the fight to defend itself from India, Pakistan must prepare as if it is alone. Reliance on China, or any other country or group of countries, or any set of international rules or norms only emboldens India’s aggression. In 2021, this preparation must begin and end with coherence of message.

The pressure from the left? Or the West? That will be Afghanistan and Iran. The complexity of what is to come in Afghanistan is not a secret. Much of what the Biden Administration eventually does in Afghanistan will impact Pakistan in myriad ways. Managing that fallout requires not only the building of strong bridges between Islamabad and Kabul, but also ways and means to tackle spoilers meant to toxify the relationship. Iran is a less obvious, but more complicated challenge for Pakistan. Iran’s unrelenting regional ambitions and the ideological symbols it uses to mobilise citizens of other countries in service of those ambitions need to be checked. So too does the appetite for war and regime change in the West and in Riyadh.

Being helplessly stuck between these two extremes is a source of stasis and weakness. Pakistan must proactively, but carefully, engage in diplomacy to help avoid war and conflict that targets Iran, whilst compelling Iran to quell its regional ambitions and the conflict-generating impact they have, especially on Pakistani soil. PM Imran Khan, FM SM Qureshi and a loose cannon cabinet have not demonstrated the nuance and care required to navigate the complexity of Pakistan-Iran relations. But it is of vital national interest that they learn.

The pressure from above will come in the shape of a rehashed Biden counterterrorism doctrine that privileges American remote war capability. The Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras of the drone are going to be replaced by the Cenozoic. Greater precision munitions, sharper signals intelligence, and deeper Pakistan-US cooperation on the ground and beyond, will not necessarily lead to more peace or stability. In 2021, Pakistan will have a chance to shape its own fight against Daesh, and the shape of how the US fights it too. Limiting the negative externalities of this fight will determine the long-term outcome of counterterrorism cooperation between Pakistan and regional and global powers.

Finally, the pressure from beneath, or from the ground we stand on. This is the most potent and scariest of domains. Pakistan’s dilapidated system of governance has put the country’s civil services, especially its police, in an impossible position. Law and order in Pakistan is the name given to conditions that make the streets and markets and airports of the country safe – for the elite. Development in Pakistan is the name given to infrastructure and GDP growth that enables signal-free passage through thick city traffic, and cheap consumption of luxury goods and services – for the elite. National reconciliation or national dialogue is how we find new ways to accommodate already dominant elite preferences in terms of power, power sharing and an absence of accountability.

The elite don’t like being called the elite. But the single greatest pressure point for Pakistan is in fact the continued unchallenged, subsidized and taxless freedoms and luxuries that the elite enjoy. Military and civilian, secular and religious, private sector or bureaucratic, the Pakistani elite stands on ground that has been shifting for many years.

And thus, a prayer for 2021 (and every morning and evening), from Sunan Ibn Majah, “O Allah protect me from my front, from behind me, from my right and from my left, and from above me… and I seek refuge in Your Magnificence from being taken unaware from beneath me.”