Pakistan-Another Bout of Instability
Pakistan, never too stable at the best of times, is headed for a fresh period of turmoil as its multi-fold political, economic and security problems converge upon it.
The writing is quite literally on the wall. Huge hoardings have emerged in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi pleading for the army to take over and ‘Save the Nation’. As Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif returned, in the second week of July, from an open - heart surgery in London, after an extended absence from Islamabad, he has come across an Army that is fast taking over control of government issues and political opposition by Imran Khan and the firebrand cleric Tahir Qadri against corruption and incompetence in his government.
Sharif may have been the first Pakistani Prime Minister to have been democratically elected after the previous government completed its full term in power, but whether he will hand over (or retain) the mantle after his tenure seems a little iffy. Three years in power and with another two to go, he is fast becoming a lame-duck Prime Minister with the army expanding its role in different aspects of government
Relations between him and his unrelated name sake General Raheel Sharif are frosty at best. General Sharif’s tenure as Army Chief is due to expire at the end of the year, and already there is a clamour (largely sponsored from within the army itself) for his extension. The hoardings in Islamabad and Karachi, request General Sharif to continue till complete eradication of militancy and corruption in the country.
It is this canard of militancy and corruption that the army is playing on. Its Zarb-e-Azm campaign, launched after the massacre of 130 school children at Army Public School, Peshawar, has reduced the level of militant violence somewhat. But Waziristan is still not under government control and strikes in the heartland continue unabated. Attacks on minorities and sectarian violence have spiked, especially in the holy month of Ramzan ; the most recent being the killing of 70 revelers in a park at Lahore, and the assassination of the Sufi singer Ahmed Sabri in the heart of Karachi. The Taliban remains active as ever, and compounding the problem is the rise of the Islamic State, whose even more virulent philosophy is drawing an increasing number of followers within the nation.
The Army’s campaign against the Taliban in Waziristan – launched without even consulting the government - has emboldened the Army considerably and raised its stature once again. The perceived success of Zarb-e-Azm, has become one of the planks of the ‘Sack Nawaz Sharif; Retain General Sharif’s campaign.
The other plank, is that of corruption. The Panama Papers and revelations of the Sharif family’s involvement in dubious off-shore deals, has given fresh ammunition to the opposition and is being subtly exploited by the army. Both Imran Khan and Tahir Qadri are known to be close to the Army and secretly propped up by it. The Canadian preacher Qadri, had organized a massive strike against corruption at the beginning of Nawaz Sharif’s term which paralyzed the Government for over a month. He is now back in Pakistan to organize another protest that will ‘finish off Sharif, once and for all’
While the country grapples with internal unrest, its international image has taken a beating. Nawaz Sharif did try to bring about some normalcy to Indo-Pak relations, but any hope of a break-through vanished after the Pathankot attacks. It is well known that the army is not in favour of normalizing relations and any efforts towards this will be stymied by them. Their tightening grip on foreign affairs was on display when the entire cabinet, including the Interior and the Foreign Affairs Minister were summoned to GHQ in Rawalpindi, to discuss the external policy – usually the purview of the Government. Politically too, Sharif has been pushed into a corner for his attempts to restore relations with India. The opposition parties have used the line ‘Modi ke Dost; Pakistan ke Desh Drohi’ to whip up sentiments against his foreign policies. With the Army getting greater clout, it is unlikely that the government will be able to push through any initiative with India.
Relations with its other favourite enemy – USA –have also taken a dive. The killing of the Taliban Chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour marked a first US drone attack outside FATA (Mansour was targeted in Baluchistan) – raising the usual protests of violation of national sovereignty etc. But then US patience with Pakistanis running thin.
The US has decided to hurt Pakistan where it hurts most – economically. It first raised a Congressional blockade against the subsidizing of the sale of eight F -16 fighters to Pakistan. (The US was funding $470 million and Pakistan paying just $ 230 million for the deal). It also blocked $500 million in Coalition Support Aid unless Pakistan fulfills demands to counter terrorism emanating from its soil. This has raised hackles, since Pakistan claims that the amount is not aid, but the legitimate reimbursement to be paid for the deployment of its troops and for logistic support to the ISAF in Afghanistan. The increasingly hard stance of the USA will be compounded when the next President takes over – and should it be Trump, the gloves will be truly off.
Pakistan’s four decade long struggle for ‘strategic depth’ via Afghanistan also seems to be unraveling. Its relations with Afghanistan have unraveled rapidly, after the initial bonhomie when President Ghani took over. He now accuses Pakistan of derailing the peace process in Afghanistan, and sponsoring the Haqqani network there. Relations reached a new low when Pakistan sealed the border after a week-long clash between the border guards at the Turkhum crossing near Khyber pass, which killed ten, including a Pakistani army Major. Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan will further wane with the finalization of the Chabahar Port agreement between India and Iran. This will give Afghanistan access to the sea and reduce the land-locked nation’s dependence on Pakistan. Predictably, it has led to fears of ‘strategic encirclement’ by India.
As Pakistan struggles with political instability, internal security issues, and international isolation, it is pointless reiterating that it is all of its own doing. That realization has to come from within. Politically there will be moves to weaken Sharif further. The army will strengthen its hand, and perhaps Raheel Sharif will get an extension. Yet it is unlikely that a military coup will come about. Neither the international community nor the average Pakistani will condone that. But the increased control of the army over national issues will have long-term repercussions, which will make it even more difficult for the isolated, cash-strapped nation to recover from in the future.