Is Pakistan the bad boy of South Asia?
The question is being asked as the country celebrates 75 years of independence and some introspection about its journey finds its way into news as well as social media. Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Imran Khan has been charged with a terrorism case by the Shahbaz Sharif government — he is waiting to be arrested.
Polarised polities are not unique to Pakistan. Both India and Bangladesh have bitterly contested political spaces today; Nepal is only marginally better. Nor was Pakistan’s decision to award pole position to military dictatorships at home inevitable; India, its divided twin, championed democracy under Jawaharlal Nehru, and whatever the state of internal siege today, remains decidedly in favour.
Perhaps the dismal state of the economy is adding to the sense of despair in Pakistan. Two perceptive Pakistani lawyers writing in Business Recorder over the weekend said that while India makes judgements that its “national interests dictate” — buying oil from Russia while allying with the US in the Quad — “Pakistan is in the shackles of foreign debt and dependence…(its) near-default economy can no longer be characterised merely as a financial issue but one that puts our national security and sovereignty at stake.”
The Business Recorder article is truly revealing. It talks about how Pakistan is waiting for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to revive the stalled extended fund facility worth $6 billion signed way back in 2019, so as to inject some succour into the economy — but that talks with the IMF may upset the patrons in Beijing. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) may turn from lifeline to noose as Pakistan falters on payments to Chinese power producers setting up dedicated power plants inside Pakistan as part of the CPEC trail; it is already indebted to Beijing to the tune of PKR 340 billion.
Most importantly, IMF conditions on debt relief mandate that Pakistan reduce budget allocations to the military. Now, the biggest question the country is asking is: Can Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif bring himself to do that? Will the Deep State allow some elected prime minister, who is beholden to him for putting him on the chair, to undercut the ground beneath his feet?
Also read: ‘This is what you call independent’ — Imran Khan praises India resisting US on Russian oil import
Eyeing the neighbours
Certainly, the Pakistani military establishment believes that it is the final arbiter, the keeper of the nation’s integrity and morality, and especially its security and foreign policy. Apart from playing the big powers — the US, China and Russia — with finesse and sophistication, the Pakistani military establishment pays particular attention to its neighbours, both India and Afghanistan. In India, we know the trajectory first hand: Managing proxy wars and warriors in Kashmir, Mumbai, and via the IC-814 hijacking from Kathmandu to Kandahar in 1999 – all in the hope that it can keep a nation of one-sixth of India’s population and one-fourth its size on edge.
Bangladesh was an early victim of the Pakistani military. In the run-up to the 1971 War, the Pakistani army carried out several massacres on ordinary folk as well as the intellectual elites; 50 years on, Bangladeshis remain suspicious about any move to normalise relations. A high commissioner sits in Dhaka, but there isn’t much else. Bangladesh insists on an apology from Pakistan for the 1971 events, and it hasn’t gotten any yet.
One would think that Pakistan’s relationship with its other neighbour, Afghanistan, would be warm and fuzzy – after all, the military establishment helped the Taliban to come to power a year ago as it did in 1996 after decades of sheltering them in Pakistani towns and cities like Quetta, Miramshah and Karachi. Some Taliban leaders who resisted the charms of Pakistani intelligence like the Taliban’s acting deputy prime minister Abdul Ghani Baradar were thrown into jail for several years and tortured. They are certainly not enamoured by Pakistan.
Remember too that within days of the Taliban walking into Kabul on 15 August last year, former Inter-Services Intelligence head Faiz Hameed was in Kabul – no doubt putting into place key proteges that would run the government by proxy.
Moreover, Islam is a key binding factor between the two nations. So, when Afghans see Muslims being lynched in India or rapists let out of jail and feted, India’s democratic credentials get a big jolt. Over the last year, India’s refusal to play to its soft power strength by denying visas to as many of the 13,000 Afghan students studying in India — and paying good money to Indian educational institutions — is probably one of the worst decisions that it can make.
Also read: Why Taliban wants India in Kabul and New Delhi is upscaling mission
Not selling body and soul to Rawalpindi
One year on, the picture is far more complex. While Pakistan remains the most important power in Kabul today, its relationship with the Islamic Emirate isn’t as smooth and unwrinkled as one would expect it to be. Instead, there is resentment and even anger at the highest levels in Kandahar – where the top leadership lives – and in Kabul.
The overwhelming impression is that the Islamic Emirate has not sold itself body and soul to Rawalpindi.
So, when Pakistan Air Force jets bombed the Afghan provinces of Khost and Kunar in April in retaliation to the bombing of a Pakistani military convoy in North Waziristan, the Taliban cried foul; none other than Mullah Yaqoob, the Taliban defence minister and son of Taliban founder Mullah Omar, warned Pakistan that it should be more restrained in the future.
Afghan analysts point out that the Taliban are Afghans first, and that this loyalty to their nation and tribe overrides any other identification. And that the special Afghan fondness for a benign India is directly proportional to their discomfort with Pakistan’s obvious interference in the Afghan ‘great game’.
Faiz Zaland, noted Afghan political analyst and professor at Kabul University, told me in Kabul recently that the Taliban will never undermine their own country at the cost of their loyalty to the Pakistani military establishment. He pointed out that Pakistan’s disruptive policies, via proxy warriors and harbouring anti-State actors, had affected the entire region.
So, as Pakistani aircraft flutters over the Hindu Kush, the question resurfaces: Is it the bad boy of South Asia? And if it is, then how does the rest of South Asia help moderate its behaviour?
Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)