At one level, there’s no need to write this article on Pakistan in 2022. Any account of Pakistan has little positive at any time, either this year, or in the past decade. Yet, there are some dangerous aspects to Pakistan’s status that needs to be identified and monitored in the year to come, and perhaps solutions need to be found. That may seem unrealistic. But the truth is, you can’t change your neighbours. But if one is slipping down the slope into chaos, it might be necessary to reach a hand out to stop them. One could alternatively hold their head underwater until they succumb, and that’s also a choice to be taken. So, here’s looking at some of the major trends in Pakistan, and a look-out notice for the future.
Trend one – Pakistan is sinking into its own jihadi strategy
Once a tool in the hands of the Pakistani army, religious extremism is now firmly part and parcel of Pakistani politics, from the prime minister downwards to a series of apparently ‘anti-State’ protesters, all of whom claim to speak for Islam. That includes Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) chief Saad Rizvi, who stirred up thousands onto the streets on the issue of blasphemy, demanding the expulsion of the French ambassador after French President Emmanuel Macron declared the ‘right to blaspheme’ and freedom of speech. Rizvi was first arrested and his organisation proscribed in a show of State firmness. As violence escalated, a predictable U-turn followed, leading to his release, withdrawal of proscribed status, and TLP likely becoming a ‘kingmaker’ in the next general election.
That’s quite a rise from 2018, when the TLP was patronised by the establishment to cut down Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister at the time, which is it did most successfully, winning the third largest vote share in the general elections. What’s notable is that the TLP stance on ‘Islamophobia’ was completely endorsed by PM Imran Khan and the French ambassador summoned, even though France is one of the top five creditors to Pakistan. This is not the PM upstaging the Right. It’s the convictions of a prime minister who doesn’t hesitate to pontify on Islam at the slightest opportunity and base his foreign policy on his self-assumed role as leader of the Islamic Ummah.
Traditional religious parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) soon learnt intelligent lessons. From mid-2021, the Jamaat took the lead in the massive protests in Gwadar on the platform of “Baloch ko haq do”. Helmed by Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman, the provincial general secretary of the JeI, it was backed solidly by the party as well as various nationalist leaders and even separatists like Allah Nazar. The Jamaat is not in the least anti-establishment, but it knows a good cause when it sees one that will propel it in elections. The huge might of the JeI meant that the State preferred to parley, rather than use the traditional fist. Further on to the west, is the successful return of Maulana Fazlur Rehman and his party Jamaat Ulema Islam in local body polls trouncing the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). The underlying drift to the Right that now characterises Pakistan, evident as people celebrated the ‘victory’ of the Taliban, will be understood by the mainstream parties, who will inevitably move to the Right to capture this fundamentalist vote, and thereby push Pakistan even more towards extremism. In a country that is already in severe economic straits, that’s a dangerous drift.
An economy on drip
Which leads to the second trend. Pakistan is bankrupt, as a former chairman of the Federal Board of Revenue said, referring to a constant current account and fiscal deficit and debt of over $115 billion. The extent of debt is apparent from a World Bank report that put Pakistan among the top ten in the world, with the largest external debt stocks. In all fairness, the country has been on a kind of economic drip for years, which barely sustains it from one loan to the next.
So, what’s different now? Several things. First, that debt itself is not a killer. It’s the inability to pay it back at a reasonable cost that matters. A careful analysis indicates that interest on loans is the single largest expense in the federal budget, bigger than “defence affairs and services” and the whole of “development expenditure”. Then there’s the fact that the Pakistani rupee has fallen to unprecedented levels against the dollar, leading to a spiral of increasing debt. Worse, Pakistan’s imports bill for food including vegetables and sugar has risen nearly 50 per cent. And finally, at the top of the pile of issues, is the obvious – Pakistan owes nearly double to China than it does to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In other words, Pakistan is broke, likely to stay broke despite IMF loans, and is in danger of being swallowed up by China if it doesn’t recoup quickly. To do that, Pakistan has to change the way it thinks and does business. That means it has to take a close look at its foreign policy, and assess whether it serves to cut the Gordian knot of debt, increased taxation, low growth and more poverty.
Making enemies everywhere
There’s nothing good on the foreign policy front. 2021 was the year Pakistan managed to annoy its patron saint Saudi Arabia, be snubbed entirely by US President Joe Biden, and get nothing more than a nod from ‘brotherly’ Islamic states at the OIC Foreign Ministers’ Conference. After the spat over Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s threat to walk off the OIC on the question of Kashmir, Riyadh has only just re-started its $4.3 billion loan, but on harsh terms, while the OIC as a body prefers to deal directly with Kabul, rather than go through Pakistan.
Meanwhile ‘iron brother’ China is also tiring, as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) slows down once again. The Joint Coordination Committee, which is supposed to meet twice a year, had not met since November 2019. It finally held a meeting in September 2021, where Beijing expressed frustration over non-payment of Rs 230 billion in dues from the power sector, while Islamabad wanted a change in tariff, which was flatly refused. A central project, the ML-1 railway line, could not be finalised, and Islamabad had to fall back by announcing a seemingly massive $3.5 billion Karachi coastal development plan, as a ‘game changer’. However, it emerged that only a Memorandum of Understanding had been signed, for possible commitment from a Chinese company. It does seem now that Islamabad is learning caution, as it sees itself going further into the red, with no possibility of avoiding a debt trap even while opening up new projects. It’s a dead-end with Chinese characteristics.
Which brings the whole to the basics. Pakistan has gained nothing from its 40-year patronage of terrorism as the fulcrum of its ‘foreign policy’. Some hints of a change from “a narrative of geo-political contestation into geo-economic integration’ came from Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa in early 2021. That was followed by ‘victory’ in Afghanistan, and no particular evidence at all of a shift towards integration, with India or anyone else. The outlines of a National Security Policy 2022-2026 cleared recently by Pakistan’s National Security Committee is said to be ‘citizen centric’ with economic security at the core, aimed at providing for military and social security. All this is very well in its place, but unless this new security policy recognises that Pakistan’s much-vaunted ‘geo-strategic’ location is turned towards actual economic integration rather than as a base for terrorist sponsorship, nothing at all will change, and a precipitous slide into anarchy can be expected, as the common man rebels against rising prices and turns even more towards religious extremists for salvation.
The first step is to re-open trade with India, stopped after August 2019, and which was proposed recently due to pressure from traders, and as quickly reversed due to pressure from politicians. Pakistan has the potential to be the gateway to trade between continents, thereby giving all regional partners a stake in peace. As for India, it has the choice to entirely ignore Pakistan, and let it fall into a mess of its own making. There is after all nothing to indicate that Rawalpindi will not again play its messy terrorist games, once the economy stabilises. But the point is that’s not going to happen in a hurry, and everyone knows it. It’s really not Delhi’s choice. It’s a decision Pakistan has to make, and a difficult one. After all, what it demands is no less than a complete top-down change from a country that ties a noose around its own neck, to one that works with its neighbours for its own good. It would be revolutionary, and nothing less.
The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)