Only a sustained and united national effort can extricate Pakistan from this dangerous situation
Pakistan is confronted by a Perfect Storm — the lethal combination of toxic internal and external developments that are inextricably linked to pose grave challenges to its security and stability. Only a sustained and united national effort can extricate Pakistan from this dangerous situation.
Internally, Pakistan has become completely polarised. No ground exists for dialogue and compromise, even on national security issues. This political instability has generated an economic meltdown with hyper-inflation, soaring debt, depleting resources and increasing unemployment. Longer term problems — global warming, water scarcity, food shortages and a ballooning population — make the situation even more untenable.
Externally, the growing confrontation between the major powers poses serious challenges, especially to relations with the US. Washington views Pakistan’s alliance with China and differences with India as obstacles to the Indo-US strategic partnership against China, since this undermines India’s role as America’s ‘Net Security Provider’. Washington has also opposed CPEC, describing it as a ‘debt trap’, to undermine the Pakistan-China relations. Even more significantly, the Americans want Pakistan’s strategic capabilities to be unilaterally restrained if not rolled back. In the worst case scenario, political instability in Pakistan can be used as an excuse to try and take control of Pakistan’s nuclear assets, for which the US already has contingency plans, requiring Pakistan to take necessary security measures. The relationship has also soured due to the American defeat in Afghanistan for which Pakistan is blamed. Since Pakistan will not compromise on any of these key issues, there can be no substantive improvement in bilateral relations. No amount of sycophancy or appeasement on Pakistan’s part can change this reality.
Similarly, relations with India face a dead end. Seeking regional hegemony, an increasingly powerful India with American support is in no mood to compromise with Pakistan. On the contrary, Modi’s revanchist India seeks to further weaken Pakistan and dreams of absorbing Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. Modi government’s repression of Indian Muslims and denigration of Islam is a further indicator of his belligerence. The only restraining factor on Indian aggression is Pakistan’s nuclear capability. In this situation, no dialogue let alone trade is a realistic possibility.
Meanwhile, India is promoting TTP and Baloch terrorists, operating from ungoverned spaces in Afghanistan, to destabilise Pakistan and target Chinese interests in Pakistan to derail the Pakistan-China relationship. India is also taking unprecedented steps to normalise relations with the Afghan Taliban, using financial and material incentives to reestablish Indian influence while sowing dissensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Quite possibly, the US supports these Indian tactics.
Further pressure on Pakistan is being applied through tough IMF bailout conditionalities, denial of western assistance, FATF grey-listing and opposition to Pakistan’s engagement with Russia and Iran.
While Pakistan’s internal and external challenges are formidable, they are not insurmountable. To tackle them requires, first and foremost, political stability. Only a government that has the widest national support can have the mandate to take the tough decisions ahead on the basis of a consensual national agenda. On the economic front, a band-aid short term approach based on IMF bailouts and foreign assistance can only provide temporary reprieve. The only solution is sustainable economic growth achieved through a long term strategy for structural reforms, ending the elite capture of the economy, closing the revenue and expenditure gap, broadening the tax base by including the agriculture and retail sectors and by ending tax evasions. Corruption and inefficiency also need to be overcome through speedy, transparent and impartial judicial measures. Energy imports need to be substituted by domestic resources such as coal, gas, hydro power, nuclear energy and renewable sources. Privatisation of hemorrhaging public sector corporations must also be fast-tracked. And investments ought to be made in scientific and technical education including skills development to take advantage of the youth bulge in the population.
On the external front, an unambiguous decision must be made on choosing our security and development partners. Clearly, the only country that is willing and able to assist us is China, which is not only a major world power but also the engine for future global growth. Unfortunately, Pakistan has been sending mixed signals to the Chinese, failing to match words with deeds. The highest priority should be given to ensuring the security of Chinese interests in Pakistan. Obstacles to the implementation of CPEC must be removed. Perfidious criticism of the Pakistan-China relationship, both from within and abroad, needs to be effectively countered.
Now opportunities for engagement should also be explored with Russia, inspite of the Western pressure against such cooperation. These countries are themselves engaging with Russia despite their stance on the Ukraine war to obtain Russian oil and gas. Despite its strategic alliance with the US, India is also purchasing cheaper Russian oil and wheat. There is no reason why Pakistan should not do the same.
China and Russia can also cooperate with Pakistan to promote regional connectivity between South, West and Central Asia as well as to ensure stability in Afghanistan. These are interests shared by Iran. Since the Saudis and Iranians are themselves seeking reconciliation, Pakistan-Saudi relations should no longer restrain Pakistan’s relations with Iran.
Certainly there will be American opposition to Pakistan’s cooperation with China, Russia and Iran, with possible imposition of sanctions in response. However, the Americans are neither willing nor capable of offering viable alternatives. Besides, there is no American assistance available for Pakistan, thereby limiting their capability for punitive action.
Essentially, it is the pro-American mindset among Pakistan’s elite that has prevented a paradigm shift from reliance on the US towards the other major powers. But a determined pursuit of Pakistan’s long term national interests requires such a vital transition. This does not necessarily require abandoning relations with the US but seeking alternative opportunities for Pakistan’s security and development.
It will only be through pursuing such far-sighted internal and external policies that Pakistan can eventually weather the perfect storm that it is confronting. The process will be difficult and huge sacrifices will have to be made. Still there is no other option before the country.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 21st, 2022.