Wednesday June 12, 2024

Strategic exhaustion

By Javid Husain
October 03, 2022

Pakistan currently has many of the familiar symptoms of strategic exhaustion like the slow growth of its economy, rapidly piling up external debt, fast depreciation of its currency, political instability and discontent, rapidly growing public debt, and increasing difficulties faced by the country in providing resources for its security and foreign policy needs.

These alarming indicators call for urgent and decisive policy changes to ensure the nation’s security, rapid and sustainable economic growth, and political stability. Our inability to do so would expose the country to serious dangers on the pattern of what happened to the erstwhile Soviet Union.

Several factors are responsible for bringing the country to this alarming state. The foremost among them is the political instability caused by the immaturity and lack of far-sightedness of our politicians and the interference of the establishment in political affairs since 1958. This overt and covert interference over the past seven decades in political affairs prevented democracy from taking root in the country, undermined the sanctity of the constitution, encouraged corruption by weakening rule of law and promoting arbitrariness in decision-making, and led to growing inequalities of income and wealth in society by suppressing the voice of the people.

The country has also suffered enormously from gross economic mismanagement reflected in low national savings and investment rates, inadequate attention to education in general and advancement of science and technology in particular, underdeveloped physical and social infrastructure, and a growing rentier class which subsists on robbing the nation of its resources through dubious means instead of making positive contributions to the productivity of the economy. Unsurprisingly, these ill-conceived policies have led to slow growth rates of the economy, high rates of unemployment, poverty and illiteracy, and backwardness in industry, agriculture, and science and technology.

The net result of political instability, denial of social and economic justice, and economic mismanagement is a highly oppressive and exploitative system of governance under which the weak and the poor are at the mercy of the powerful and the rich in society. There are daily reports of members of the elite virtually getting away with murder of the downtrodden. The people at large, who do not see a way out because they have been defrauded of their legitimate rights by successive civil and military leaders, are demoralized. The situation is ripe for a social explosion if urgent measures are not taken to accelerate economic growth and provide social and economic justice to the weak and the poor.

The symptoms of strategic exhaustion given above have been aggravated over time because of Pakistan’s over-ambitious foreign policy agenda and imprudent security policies. Pakistan’s ill-conceived Kashmir and Afghanistan policies of the 1990s are a prime example of such flaws. In the case of Kashmir, our operational policy got too far ahead of our declared policy of extending moral, diplomatic and political support to the Kashmir cause with disastrous consequences for the Kashmiris and for Pakistan. There is little to show for that deeply flawed policy which lacked any strategic rationale or deep understanding of the complexity of the issue.

As for Afghanistan, we ignored the lessons of history for a country that had defied earlier attempts by the British and the Soviets to control it. Accordingly, we blundered headlong into the Afghan quagmire and tried to prop up the Taliban in our proxy war with Iran for influence in Afghanistan instead of promoting a negotiated solution of the internal conflict acceptable to the various Afghan parties. This is not to deny that Iran was equally guilty of committing similar blunders in Afghanistan through its support to the Northern Alliance.

Pakistan’s support in the 1990s to the Taliban, who espoused a retrogressive and obscurantist interpretation of Islam, tarnished its image throughout the world. Within Afghanistan, its pro-Taliban policy alienated it from most of the non-Pashtuns. Further, this policy encouraged religious extremism and a Kalashnikov culture in Pakistan, the aftereffects of which it is still suffering. Both Pakistan and the Afghans suffered in the process as reflected by the two-decade long post-9/11 war imposed by the US on Afghanistan, which caused enormous loss of human lives and material destruction in that country besides the negative blowback effects in Pakistan.

While Pakistan’s over-ambitious foreign policy agenda and its imprudent security policies have been responsible, at least partly, for the symptoms of strategic exhaustion mentioned above, these symptoms make the task of coming to grips with external challenges that much more difficult. Pakistan is now engulfed in a vicious circle in which an over-ambitious and imprudent foreign policy agenda weakens it politically, economically, and strategically while these weaknesses make the achievement of those ambitious goals even more elusive.

The alarming situation in which Pakistan finds itself currently calls for urgent corrective steps. To start with, we should allow democracy to take root in the country by avoiding political engineering and electoral rigging from which the country has suffered grievously in the past. All state institutions should function within their constitutional limits under the supervision and control of elected governments which represent the will of the people of Pakistan. This is the only way to realize long-term political stability in the country which is a must for progress in other areas.

Second, our economic policies need a major overhaul. As a nation we must learn to live within our resources if we wish to eliminate our economic dependence on foreign donors, bilateral or multilateral. This would require a programme of austerity to raise our national saving rate so as to sustain a high national investment rate for accelerating our GDP growth rate. This should be accompanied by well-designed efforts to reduce our imports and increase exports to eliminate our huge trade and current account deficits. A significant increase in our tax-to-GDP ratio is a must to reduce our chronic fiscal deficits.

Finally, we must lower our sights to bring our foreign policy goals within the reach of our national power and resources. Our failure to do so would pose serious threats to our national security by inviting strong adverse reactions from our adversaries and by aggravating symptoms of strategic exhaustion. Further, adventurism on the pattern of what happened during the Kargil operation should be totally ruled out.

The writer is a retired ambassador. He can be reached at: