2023: hopes and fears – 04 Jan 2023

In the last few years, Army’s involvement, dominance in politics, economy, strategic decision-making was at its peak

For Pakistan, 2022 was an arduous year — perhaps one of the worst in its tumultuous history. The economy was in a shambles, teetering on default and at the mercy of IMF, with the leadership looking toward benefactors like China and Saudi Arabia for assistance. The new finance minister, to reassure a demoralised public that has suffered due to galloping inflation, tries to recall his past achievements for lifting Pakistan out of economic quagmires in 1998, 2008 and 2013. If these are our standards and supposedly national achievements that we aspire for then we are merely trying to stay afloat. We need to reassess our goals and raise our expectations to stay relevant in a highly competitive global environment. Indeed, it would be a challenge to come out of the present financial crisis and the government could take credit in case it is fully realised, but it should not be our high point and zenith. A country of over 220 million people that are industrious, well-meaning and bestowed with distinct geostrategic advantage should aspire and deserve far more.

In 2022, politics was even worse. It was highly inimical, mostly conducted on streets, and parliament was being deliberately ignored, especially by the PTI. The threat of Imran Khan that his party MNAs resign from a dysfunctional parliament kept looming until the close of the year. The PDM kept hanging to power at the federal level with a feeble coalition government that is no position to take hard decisions that the country needs in order to recover from the current slide.

In Punjab, the shrewd Chief Minister Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, while interested in staying on the right side of the Army leadership by maintaining his links with them, was also able to retain support of Imran Khan. The balancing act was no easy task that at times seemed falling apart but eventually Elahi decided to dissolve the provincial assembly to conform to Khan’s wishes. Meanwhile, the federal and provincial governments struggling to survive were not in a position to undertake any serious development projects or improve the economy whilst the regional countries and the world moved ahead.

In the last few years, the Army’s involvement and dominance in politics, economy and strategic decision-making was at its peak. It was ironical on the part of the retiring chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, to advise his successor that the Army be kept out of politics, having himself been deeply involved during his long tenure. In all probability, General Asim Munir will opt for less interference and involvement in civil matters but this would be his preference and policy and not on the basis of any advice from his predecessor. The unprecedented corruption attributed to General Bajwa has shaken the confidence in top leadership and raises serious questions regarding the accountability process of the military that demand a serious review. Any laxity in this not only has serious consequences for a cash-starved country but also the very competence of top leadership.

To place Pakistan on the right course in 2023 amidst such enormous challenges would be no easy task, especially when everything seems to be falling apart. First and foremost, the present interim coalition government does not have the intrinsic public support and is in no position to deal holistically with the problems the country is facing. The ruling coalition has diverse interests and if they take difficult decisions of following the script for economic recovery, which the situation demands, their partners may fallout. It would not be surprising that if the finance minister deviated from the script of the IMF, release of tranches will be withheld.

As though these challenges are not overwhelming and taxing the government to its limits, the security situation has taken a turn for the worse with TTP on a major offensive. It is trying to establish its writ in certain parts of the former tribal belt and in Swat. Its demand for the formation of an Islamic emirate in parts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan are a direct threat to the integrity of the state. What makes the situation rather serious is that the Afghan Taliban government considers the TTP its close ally and has given it freedom to operate in Afghanistan from where it is launching attacks on Pakistan. In the past the military and civilian leadership had given much leeway to the TTP allowing it to exploit the state’s weakness. These policies will have to be reversed and major offensive has to be launched as was done in 2014. The government has to demonstrate that it can handle terrorism effectively while being open and democratic, otherwise it could give rise to extremism. All these policies need a broad consensus. It does not serve the national interest when the PML-N policy of dealing with TTP is publicly run down by the PTI.

Moreover, the government, in consultation with the opposition, needs to seriously examine credibility of the national decision-making process. With respect to security issues, it was the military leadership that has been taking decisions. The military input is essential and must be given due weightage but there are other political and economic consideration that should be major factors in decision-making. Most of Balochistan and the area of erstwhile FATA, now integrated with K-P, have remained neglected for years as a consequence of which its economy and political development has been adversely affected, creating deep resentment in public and giving rise to separatist movements. Involving the political leadership and people of Balochistan and K-P in development of their areas is not only a democratic compulsion but also essential for fully integrating these areas in the mainstream. Any neglect would further encourage fissiparous tendencies. Giving due weightage to the political culture and traditions of Balochistan and tribal parts of K-P is important while raising the economic and educational standards of its people.

The present government obviously is not in a position to focus on these wide-ranging reforms. This adds to the urgency that elections be held soon so that national issues are addressed seriously.

Read more