Written By: AVM Shahzad Aslam
2017 was a mixed year. Pakistan failed to climb out of its difficulties and created some more. The positives were few and far between. If the economy signaled some hope it soon got dashed when the chimera of development was seen to be based on massive borrowings. China’s investments in CPEC which primarily include communication links and energy projects came in handy to buoy some promise but it was neutralized by loans which the Chinese made for most of these projects. More than investment CPEC turned out to be forced development in areas which will first serve Chinese interest but if properly channeled can trigger revival of the defunct economy in Pakistan.
Towards the middle of the year, continuing unabated to its end and rolling over to the new year, the disqualification of the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif by the Supreme Court in the wake of the Panama Leaks trial and arising(s) thereof, conflated Pakistan’s misfortunes to the point of listlessness and stagnation as a nation. It seemed to have lost its way as Nawaz Sharif’s party and his government struggled to cope with the rare judicial discretion to unseat a sitting Prime Minister. Rather than mind the fort for the remaining time of this government, they entangled themselves in the political web of inaction through insinuations and blame-game against the state and its institutions while they took their focus off from running the state and the nation; failing to govern either. It has hurt Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s government to no end. Pakistan had thus entered in a period of aimless drift in the last six months of 2017.
This multiplied the challenges for Pakistan as it hurtles through from one year into another, weighed by its failures and disappointments rather than associating with the dawn of the new year with resolutions and greater promises. A stocktaking and an exercise in prioritization however beckons. When the sun rises on the first morning of 2018 in Pakistan, she will have plenty to worry about. Sadly, some of those worries could have easily been avoided but have pushed themselves at the top of the to-do list of things if Pakistan must retain its coherence and integrity as a relevant member of the global community.
When the sun rises on the first morning of 2018 in Pakistan, she will have plenty to worry about. Sadly, some of those worries could have easily been avoided but have pushed themselves at the top of the to-do list of things if Pakistan must retain its coherence and integrity as a relevant member of the global community.
Political Stability: Politically Pakistan has been in a no-man’s land with almost no governance, aimless and lackluster administration and a confused sense of purpose. This vacuum has created a void where Pakistan’s existing challenges, some existential in nature like the fight against terrorism have found increased eminence, while others like regional alliances which have tended to isolate Pakistan have become more ominous.
The elections in 2018 must be held on time. These must be held as fairly as possible to give them credibility which will obviate allegations of fraud and manipulation of public opinion against an undesired electoral result by losing political parties. The revised election laws have been recently passed by the Parliament which as the overarching statute must act as the touchstone of veracity. Any objections must be efficiently and expeditiously dealt with by the Courts. After the Parliament is in place it must function as the primary source of debate on policy and legislation and the leaders who form it must give it the primacy in matters of the state and the nation. Local governments must be fully in place with necessary legal and financial authority to take up their role in community and nation-building.
If there is one lesson that the country needs to draw from its recent experience of disturbed politics and its subsequent fall-out, it is to retain a strong, durable and a credible political system with functioning democratic and political structures to support it which alone will ensure a stable socio-political environment for the nation to evolve and realize its potential. The new year will enjoin this facet as our nation’s foremost task of 2018. The politicians who make-up this element of our nation and statehood must realize the urgency of following a conduct which can fulfill their occupational obligations in the most optimum manner; the one aspect which can provide stability and direction to all in pursuit of realizing the potential of a progressive and a prosperous future. Their personal conduct will have to be above board to ensure that their collective is rarely brought to question.
Fighting Terror, Eliminating Extremism: Pakistan had come close to claiming a near perfect end to the threat of terror which had plagued the landscape of the country and the region now for more than a decade-and-a-half. But a loss of focus in most areas of governance over the last year-and-a-half has meant that even this existential danger of terror amidst us escaped a stricter scrutiny. Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad was first announced as the more inward aspect of a continuing war on terror even as Pakistan loudly began to seek the return of the over three million Afghan refugees from its soil and put in place steps to seek better border control with Afghanistan. This effort slipped a little when the operation could not be uniformly launched all across the country and a more reactive, intelligence-based effort instead became the norm.
With the loss of initiative the momentum in internal security operations was lost. This recreated the space available to inimical forces to return to their terrorist ways. Quetta, in particular, and parts of KP have been buffeted with the return of terror, spasmodic, yet reminding of its pervasive threat. This threat requires a return to fighting terror, its executants, its facilitators and its planners wherever they may be using all resources available to the state. Returning Afghan refugees to their homeland must retain the highest priority, while securing borders through fencing, entry and exit control, and electronic monitoring reinforced by physical troops deployment along the border should be concurrently implemented.
Efforts on the external front to improve regional and bilateral relationships and a better understanding with Pakistan’s neighbours, bilaterally and multilaterally will augment efforts to achieve peace. Daesh is likely to replace Al-Qaeda as the future threat in the region. Alone, or in consultation with other countries of the region, Pakistan must push for coordinated efforts where possible, choosing direct action where possible to deny space to this increasingly ominous phenomenon. The threat of Daesh can be the new lever of terror for those who plan to continue to coerce Pakistan into submission.
Internally, Pakistan will have to expend all efforts to fighting radicalism and extremism in religious thinking as a priority. Unless this is addressed, the pervasive source of recruiting foot-soldiers for these terror outfits will remain available. Until this is nipped in the bud through a composite action of law enforcement, better economic inducement, and a corrective narrative by authentic religious scholars of the country to help negate what has attracted most misdirected cadres to these groups of terrorists, this one aspect of strife within will remain a potent possibility. Institution and reversion to National Action Plan as the blueprint to wean the society away from its radical thought and extremist ways is the key to disabling the unstinted supply of such disgruntled youth. With Daesh lurking in the background with its more sophisticated appeal, these corrective measures can be Pakistan’s only assured means to leave internecine and debilitating conflict behind and pursue what should become a more progressive society. The nation has paid its wages in blood; it deserves its rewards of finding stability and peace.
Economic Resilience: Pakistan’s economy has rested essentially on borrowed money. The infrastructure inadequacies though were an equally big handicap. These were addressed through CPEC which has helped bridge the energy gap but on the flip side has added more burden to the debt basket. This government may have focused more on keeping economic macro-indicators on line but missed the trees for the wood when it could not devise a strategy which could augment production and growth. Poverty levels may have further worsened and jobs declined. Overall the impact on the common man is of a worsening capacity. Indicators such as education and health have suffered. And along the way the stewardship was lost when the mandarins managing the economy got entangled in court cases relating to past corruption. The list is long and is what the current government is fighting against in the courts but what it betrays is an inadequate competence in economic stewardship.
These wrongs will need to be righted in 2018 under a fiscal and economic leadership which can reinforce what can be potentially strong and reinvigorate the base of engagement which should not only diversify but add value to what are Pakistani economy’s base strength, like agriculture, or something as progressive as IT when most of the world may move to AI leaving window for lower forms of IT to be filled in. Pakistan’s future economic blueprint must in essence rely on two basic planks: agriculture and IT as the world mutes the later into AI. Modernising agriculture will be critical. Controlling population growth, sensitizing to environment and climate change will mean that growth could be long term and sustainable.
An Economic Development Council under the Finance Minister would be needed composed of the Planning, Agriculture, Education and Health Ministers, as indeed the conventionally included Ministers of IT, Tourism, and Population Control. Each economic development initiative must carry inputs to contribute to the functions of one or all of the constituent departments and surely not work against the interest of any. This will need a hands-on Finance Minister capable of leading the group and conscious of the criticality of each of these components. Industry and communication are the other important components.
Policies and strategies must contribute to national growth and prosperity while alleviating poverty and enabling job growth.
Social Integration: As it stands, Pakistan’s inner front is far more loaded with uncertainty and vulnerability. The fissures are many and deep; or they have been let to deepen with inaction or through deliberate strategy. The divide is obvious: other than sectarian which forms a constant backdrop, the religious-non-religious divide has gained even greater poignance – those who were not religious enough in belief or practice hardly ever voiced against those who followed or professed religion; civ-mil divide in the last three decades has entrenched; the poor vs. the rich and the empowered vs. the disempowered divide is a dangerous one as well. An intra-power wielders struggle is tugging at the seams of the fabric of nationhood.
Many wish to refer to the Indian example as to why nationalism need not be an overwhelmingly assimilating consequence, or why the sense of nationalism is bad. However, they tend to forget the physical dimensions of a nation as they make this ill-considered observation. A larger nation with a huge population has no threat of further fragmentation. India surely falls in that category. Britain or Spain may have no second thoughts – which they do, incidentally – of letting the Scots and the Catalans consider separate homelands since entire Europe anyway is more like a political definition of a confederation. Even India comes close to the same characterization.
Pakistan on the other hand is much smaller and hence vulnerable to fissiparousness if sub-nationalism becomes entrenched. Loss of even the smallest piece of its present territories will tell heavy on its composition and weaken it further, unable to withstand centrifugal-(ities) elsewhere. Larger nations can assimilate better such tendencies with its stronger core whose heavier weight is strong enough to keep fissiparity at the fringes without impacting the larger structure. Smaller nations remain far more vulnerable and hence seek greater cohesion. In the end nothing might weaken Pakistan as much as its internal divisions or threats of breaking-away of territories.
The division in the nation is both structural and ideological. Structurally in economic and opportunity terms the state can and should make all necessary amends to minimize the varying degrees of a promise to opportunity, and in education and health for example, to mitigate the existing chasm. Ideology is where the division has permeated slowly but surely; and is far too dangerous to national cohesion and long term well-being. Issues related to sub-nationalism aside, expression of thought considered injurious to the majority sentiment leads to a scare typical of nations like Pakistan which have apprehended externally planted or internally nurtured sentiment of volatile disharmony as the largest threat to its existence.
The nation has also failed over decades to replace such fear with alternate mechanisms of nationhood of either improving stakes for all or better resilience through education to differing thought on matters as sensitive as religion and national integrity. Examples of missing persons whether on charges of blasphemy, or voicing dissent in favour of one thought or another especially related to external influences thus become more frequent. It is here that the state will have to relent some, consider how to channelize such idealism and enable it the freedom to express itself within the domain of the state and the society. Rather than stifle voices, it is better to let those be expressed without causing undue harm in the hands of external agency.
The society and the state should be fair to all and enable an equal opportunity promise for upward mobility through structures and attitudinal change at all levels of governance. That alone will enable common stakes for all citizens of the state with equal interest in the common well-being. That also then provides a direction to the society to agree on some fundamentals and not be embroiled in internecine conflict in the society. A leadership at all levels, civil, political and religious and social stowed with such sense can become the trigger for the change which is an essential to Pakistan’s long-term health. The absence of which currently is its all-time biggest threat.
Law and Order: As innocuous as it may seem the respect and implementation of this one aspect of governance is the key to bringing a sense of a society and a state to its existence. With attitudes that have instead permeated in this aspect including its implementation or when in violation its retribution remains the weakest link in how Pakistani society continues to be buffeted with a lack of coherence and direction. The emergence of groups which can hold the state to ransom at the drop of a hat, the inability of the state to respond to such manipulation of its vulnerabilities and the soft hand which tends to further augment such inclination are all indicators of the massive failure of the state and the society to develop a law-abiding citizenship.
Even if it may appear imposed, for that is how it will have to be initiated to inculcate changing attitudes and approaches towards abiding law, the cycle must begin at the top. Initially maybe examples are made of a few who get garnered in because of their misdeeds and later unless rectified if others too fall prey to what the law outlines as retribution it might deter and scare others into submission of the superiority of the law as it stands. Similarly, the first impulse against any such event against the powerful of the country will be to change or eradicate the law which binds him or her, that is where the citizenry and the judicial system must stand up any such manipulation of the law at the hands of targeted legislation for the benefit of the powerful. Once corrected the followers and the ordinary citizens have no way than to follow law which should be fair and as easily applicable through equal honesty to establish a social order more in line with how the larger world exists. That will make us into a behaviorally more responsible people with little inclination for deviation from the norm. These deviations today are many and are the bane of how Pakistani society has turned up in turn burdening both the state and the nation with challenges which at times seem insurmountable.
Conclusion: One other, mindsets will also need to change as a sine qua non even if the will to stem the rot and remedy the wrongs of the past exists, and that relates to the competence factor. In our nation competence is equated with position of authority. It is unfortunate that people of immense competence rot on the wayside in matters which relate to our nation and statehood but their expertise remains untapped. Academics, specialists and people imbued with ideas cannot find an opportunity to convey those to people who sit on decision-taking positions. Those that reach those positions are wary to tap into that resource for avoiding to look short of ideas. Cumulatively the environment of mediocrity sustains which cannot lift the country out of its existing and future challenges. 2018 will be the year of all hands coming together after the elections are over and a new government is in with a fresh mandate. What will still be needed will be the avenues where the nation as whole can become the partner in the process to lift the nation up from its predicaments.
The writer is a retired Air Vice Marshal and security analyst who has also served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Sri Lanka.