Pakistan: Perennial Turbulence

Sub Title : Everything that goes into the efficient functioning of a nation appears under stress

Issues Details : Vol 17 Issue 1 Mar – Apr 2023

Author : Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM & BAR (Retd)

Page No. : 16

Category : Geostrategy

: March 25, 2023

Pakistan has for long, been heading towards a situation where it could be perceived as a failed state, or at least a state under immense strain. Everything that goes into the efficient functioning of a nation appears under stress. The economy, internal stability, security, political leadership and foreign affairs, all seem to drive the nation towards an abyss

For the nth time Pakistan appears to be on a path of hara-kiri, an implosion in the making and disintegration. That is the surmise when one applies rationale and logic to the existing situation and takes into account the parameters that make up the development indices of any nation. Yet many scholars insist that Pakistan will survive the current challenges and remain united as a nation. However, it will always remain a threat in being, for the region and for the international community. The survival and the threat potential need deeper analysis of a variety of factors.

Pakistan appears as a nation in an interminable spiral of internal turmoil which is not easy to comprehend.

The Idea of Pakistan

To get a measure of understanding, it’s important to understand the idea of Pakistan, the development of the national ethos and the mind sets that seemed to have afflicted the nation, before coming to other factors which too compulsorily need examination. Among these other factors are: –

◆           The geo-strategic significance that has led to an over-securitization of the Pakistani state and an irrational hubris,

◆           Pakistan’s importance to the international community,

◆           The nuclear weapons factor which it perceives secures it against all threats,

◆           The inability to create a genuinely competent polity and civilian leadership,

◆           The adverse effects of allowing itself to be ideologically radicalized,

◆           Weakening of its civil society, an entity which usually is any nation’s strength,

◆           Never being able to come to terms with the idea of a stronger and more powerful India as a neighbour,

◆           Failing to address the necessity for a social transformation among its poorly educated masses thus allowing itself to be overtaken by obscurantist ideological beliefs and a mistaken perception that through this route it could lead the Islamic world.

There are other factors which remain obfuscated and form threats over time. These too will be discussed subsequently.

Internal Turmoil

Before anything else it’s the nature of the current internal turmoil which needs to be identified and projected. This can take us back many years but to keep it on balance without creating complexity it’s best to go back about 15 years and look at the progression of events that triggered the internal quagmire in Pakistan. Some of these events are identified below: –

◆           General Parvez Musharaff as President of Pakistan suffered two attempts on his life, on 14 December and 25 December 2003, by the Jaish e Mohammad (JeM) of Maulana Masood Azhar. The US operations in Afghanistan at that juncture were two years old and Musharaff was beginning to have misgivings against the radicalization of Pakistan and its Army which had commenced during the time of Zia ul Haq (1977-88). The weaponization of faith and ideology, however, seemed to appeal to the Pakistan Army.

◆           In July 2007 a siege of Lal Masjid was ordered by Parvez Musharaff, a flow over of the beginnings of his opposition to radical ideology. It witnessed an armed confrontation between radical Islamic terror groups and the Pakistan Army. The internal turmoil, involving many terror groups, some created by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) wing and focused against India for almost 20 years, and others against the Pakistan establishment itself, took a turn for the worse from this juncture. Instead of ensuring that all terror groups were reined in Pakistan tried to be selective about it; the idea of ‘good and bad terrorists’ was thus created.

◆           In its efforts to prove itself more Islamic than the rest of the Islamic world Pakistan implemented blasphemy laws with vengeance against minorities and too often allowed the streets to be taken over by self-styled clerics acting as saviours of Pakistan.

◆           Despite passage of strictures against identified terrorist leaders, such as Hafiz Sayeed, by the international community, Pakistan managed to ensure their freedom under the garb of the ‘good terrorist’ label.

◆           With President Musharaff’s departure in Aug 2008 Pakistan’s polity which had been virtually suspended for nine years came back to life. Only two parties of significance existed, the Pakistan Muslim League under Nawaz Sharif (PML-N) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) under Asif Zardari.

◆           Imran Khan Niazi, Pakistan’s former cricket captain founded his own political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Justice Movement; PTI) in 1996 but could not rise to political prominence till 2013. In spite of the PTI’s struggles in elections, Khan’s populist positions found support, especially among young people. He continued his criticism of corruption and economic inequality in Pakistan and opposed the Pakistani government’s cooperation with the US in fighting terror elements near the Afghan border. He also opposed Pakistan’s political and economic elites.

◆ The second decade of the new millennium (2011 onwards) saw democratic norms take better shape in Pakistan but the Pakistan Army did not let go its clout. Extensions for two of its Army Chiefs, under the garb of fighting terror, were extracted proving the strength of the Army’s authority. The Army dominated the political scene and was seen to be the saviour of Pakistan.

◆           The assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Tasir by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri, on 4 Jan 2011 and the support that the latter received proved the existence of a ground swell in favour of the radical elements although this did not translate into any clear advantage in the electoral exercises that followed. Governor Tasir had been very vocal against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Qadri was tried by a court and sentenced to death. Once Qadri was executed under the court sentence his place of burial became a hallowed mausoleum. The march of and embedment of Islamist radical ideology continued unimpeded.

◆           It’s the 16 Dec 2014 attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School by the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan and the death of 144 innocents, majority being young school children, that was supposed to be a revenge act against the Pakistan Army.  Operation Zarb e Azb was already in motion in Jun 2014; it was energised to focus on the various radical terror groups. Operation Zarb-e-Azb was followed by Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad which began in February 2017, following a resurgence in terrorist incidents. These were preceded by an attack on Jinnah International Airport at Karachi on 8 Jun 2014.

◆           On the Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) front the period after 2014 also saw an impetus in activities which helped the radical elements in Pakistan to rally support and enhance their influence within Pakistan. This was the short-lived period of Burhan Wani’s meteoric rise and fall (2013-16).

It was in sync with the period in which the Pakistani deep state rejected Prime Minister Modi’s hand of friendship and executed the Pathankot, Uri and Nagrota attacks (all in 2016). The value of the India focused extremist terror groups increased in the eyes of the Pakistan deep state, further mystifying the ‘good terrorist – bad terrorist’ syndrome.

◆           At best of times three aspects are of major concern to Pakistan’s security establishment. In no order of priority these are first – ensuring control over the situation in Afghanistan, second – perpetuating the proxy war in J&K, and third – the internal security situation in Pakistan. The priority in respect of each keeps changing on the basis of circumstances and the status.

◆           In this cascade of explanations of the progression of events the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) strictures on Pakistan bears importance. It created some urgency to rid the nation of the negative labels being attached to it. Internationally Pakistan was being viewed as a basket case of terror.

◆           In Jul 2018, Imran Khan got ‘selected’ as Prime Minister. The Pakistan Army, having experimented     with two other major political parties, the PML-N and the PPP perceived the need for change to an alternative. Elections were conducted but with foregone results favouring Imran Khan; thus, the infamous label. The period 2016 – 2019 was marked by a rise in street turbulence and emergence of other right-wing groups such as the Tehreek e Labayak Pakistan (TeL) whose modus operandi of functioning was the blockade of the national capital. It was never clear what Imran Khan’s actual relationship was with the radical right-wing groups. His criticism of the US and of Saudi Arabia brought the state of Pakistan’s relations with these two important partners to a virtual standstill.  It also created the beginning of the schism between Imran Khan and the Pakistan Army ultimately leading to the fall of his government.

◆           Pakistan’s economy was hugely mismanaged from early times of this period but under Imran Khan it worsened. Sensible Pakistanis with international experience such as Atif Mian, appointed to advise and lead recovery were sacked; it was discovered that the eminent international economist followed the Ahmadiyya ideology, considered as blasphemy and banned in Pakistan. Imran Khan’s incompetence, corruption, radical beliefs and campaign against the Pakistan Army led the latter to dump him and his government.

◆ Just after the Coronavirus pandemic the US withdrawal from Afghanistan occurred in Aug 2021. This changed the dynamics of security of Pakistan’s western front quite rapidly. Afghanistan under the new leadership was no longer acquiescing to Pakistan’s interests and the Taliban was repaying the long hospitality of Pakistan’s ISI by challenging the Durand Line as the border and arming and reviving the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

◆           In 2019, after thorough mismanagement of its economy Pakistan under Imran Khan secured a 6.5 billion US$ loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It was to be received by Pakistan in tranches subject to the rules of the IMF which demands that the borrowing state adheres to certain reforms and executes advice given by the IMF. A 1.6 bn US$ tranche has been hanging fire because of Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s resistance to reform. The immediately visible effects of IMF induced reform will make the incumbent government extremely unpopular. It’s a ‘devil and the deep sea’ issue which hangs like the Sword of Damocles over the current government of the PDM.

Events of the Last 15 Years

Pakistan has for long, been heading towards a situation where it could be perceived as a failed state, or at least a state under immense strain. Everything that goes into the efficient functioning of a nation appears under stress. The economy, internal stability, security, political leadership and foreign affairs, all seem to drive the nation towards an abyss. Yet it soldiers on. There are reasons for this: –

◆           As a nation Pakistan was born in chaos. A poor set of political leaders and administrators were unable to deliver, leading to the takeover by the Pakistan Army within 11 years. The Pakistan Army has since never let go the reins of power and panders to the requirements of its hierarchy. It is deeply involved in lucrative business interests which militates against any form of effective reform to benefit others. The inability of the political community and the Army to evolve a common good for the people has been Pakistan’s biggest failing.

◆           Pakistan’s initial years were made more comfortable due to the interests of the US and the Western Bloc. The Pakistani leadership was satisfied with resources coming in on the basis of the geopolitical and geostrategic importance that their nation posed at different times. That a national economy could be built on the basis of a nation remaining strategically significant forever was a misnomer.

◆           Even before the economy ensures the collapse of Pakistan, its internal security situation may well take the lead in this regard. The decision of its earlier leadership to adopt extremist radical ideology as a weapon has had a cascading blowback effect, not only on its international image but also in real terms at the ground level.

◆           The Afghan Taliban is correctly assessing that it will need an Armageddon for the US forces to return to a region where its forces fought over 20 years with little strategic outcome. The Afghan Taliban is therefore shaking off the mantle of Pakistan’s control over it. It was a creation of Pakistan’s ISI and probably envisages a far greater role for itself in the ensuing intra and inter civilizational confrontation against forces that do not profess its extremist radical ideology, in the regional context. It appears that the Afghan Taliban’s initial aspiration is to ideologically dominate the Af-Pak region thereby dictating the internal discourse in Pakistan.

◆           The Taliban in Afghanistan is probably watching the effects of climate change in Pakistan with much glee. Huge financial losses, ruin of infrastructure and the displacement of population (figures of 2.1 million are being quoted) has occurred through 2022. In chaos there is opportunity.

◆           A percentage of Pakistan’s youth is well educated but the large majority is pegged to the madrasas (seminaries). Pakistan’s education system has to rise above religion and modernise if it wishes to commence the path towards recovery of its social and economic sectors.

◆           With the internal situation in the grips of severe challenges the worst case for Pakistan would be if the international community abandons it to its fate. This is unlikely to help as it will only aid an impending implosion. Given the record of India Pakistan relations no one should expect an Indian hand of support.

◆           One of the demands of the IMF has been the reduction of Pakistan’s military footprint and the PDM government with obvious backing of the Army has been resisting it. The Pakistan Army remains one of the organizations which has been a favourite of the US, notwithstanding intermittent US stands against it. The IMF which also remains under extensive US influence could remain soft on this issue in the acceptance of disbursement of subsequent tranches.

◆           Among the other failures of Pakistan has been the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), at one time considered Pakistan’s answer to all its economic woes. Any rational voice would question Pakistan’s policy of denying India MFN status and access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. That could carry many answers to Pakistan’s woes.

 The Current Crisis and its Implications

The PDM took the form and shape of opposition unity with Pakistan Muslim League (N) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) as leading lights; an 11 party alliance with  Maulana Fazlur Rehman of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F), as the president. It was founded in Sep 2020 as a movement against then PM Imran Khan, accusing his regime of poor governance, political victimisation of opponents, and mismanaging the economy and foreign policy.

Opposition alliances have a long history in Pakistan. They have come together against military dictators but with varying success. Field Marshal Ayub Khan was removed from the presidency in the late 1960s, but these were less successful against Zia-ul-Haq’s presidency in the 1980s. What is noticed is that progressively the influence of the classic civil society has waned; the one that could rally for the removal of Ayub Khan in 1968.  This influence today has been replaced by the radical voice in society; power seems to flow from the ability to muster street strength for violent blockades of cities and establishments. In yester years the Pakistan Army’s voice carried. A word from the local Corps Commander would clear the streets.

Imran Khan was stable until he fell out with the Pakistan Army. That facilitated Shahbaz Sharif’s election as the PM on 11 Apr 2022 after a vote of no confidence against Imran Khan carried in the Pakistan National Assembly. However, it is increasingly clear that Imran Khan is the most popular political leader in Pakistan today. His power emanates from the street and the Army is unsure on how to handle him. He can easily pander to the radicals and has a following within the Pakistan Army too. With the backdrop of the failed economy the general elections (due in Jul 2023) could be postponed.

A plausible scenario could be the Army weeding out Imran supporters within the senior ranks (they are known to exist) as a first step. The postponement of the election to allow the PDM the space to project itself in better light from a governance angle seems inevitable. To remove Imran Khan from potential candidacy for PM he could either be assassinated (as in so many previous cases) or judicially defanged with the Army staying in the background. The Army will have to work overtime to convert an election result to its choosing.

What could be debated in this situation is whether the above crisis is an existential threat for Pakistan. This does not seem to be as Pakistan has seen much of the same before; only this time however, the economy too being in such a state the unpredictability factor is much higher.

Effect on India and Regional Security

The PDM government could have endeared itself to those pushing the peace narrative with India but it has remained half way. To its credit the ceasefire at the LoC has held since 25 Feb 2021. However, recent utterances by Shahbaz Sharif inspired no confidence as he harped on the same issues, ostensibly to retain some hard line support and the Army’s backing.

Logic dictates that Pakistan’s economic situation will not allow it to provoke India lest the spiral of escalation become uncontrolled.  Yet, there will be a segment within Pakistan’s hard liners that would rue the loss of all that was invested in the turbulence created in J&K. Thus, Pakistan is unlikely to pull back altogether from the sponsoring of proxy war and will work towards retention of influence in J&K. The new found opportunities in Punjab may  also be exploited.

Political elements in Pakistan will always play the politics which exploits the negatives of Indo-Pak relations to create opportunities for themselves. Not until a stable government comes to power and has the backing of the Pakistan Army, will these elements relent and allow peace a chance. The connection with China and the dependence on it for economic bailouts will always constrain Pakistan from changing its stance towards India. We can expect a dynamic situation to prevail.

As a final word Pakistan is likely to survive the chaos and continue to be an irritant for India.