The new year is off and running. A glance at the global situation doesn’t exactly fill one with cheerful thoughts and optimism. Wars, poverty, massive numbers of refugees moving across Europe in search of safety, rising Islamophobia in many western countries, and economic downturns are now a feature in many parts of the world. With so much continuing chaos in the world around us, what can we expect for Pakistan in 2016? Will it really be a happy new year?
First let’s look back at 2015 to assess some of the key achievements and challenges for indicators, then consider how these might play out in 2016. There were many of both, large and small, but let’s focus on a few of the big ones that are a regular feature of our lives in Pakistan – peace and stability, law and order, relations with Afghanistan and India, natural disasters, impact of global events, and economic prosperity. Pakistan had a quieter 2015 than we might have expected following the tragic end of 2014 when we mourned the murder by terrorists of more than 140 people, 122 of whom were children at the Army Public School in Peshawar. The perpetrators have been dealt with, either killed in the attack, or have faced the Military Courts for the ultimate punishment for their horrendous crime. But the pain is with us still a year later and for the families, it will never fade.
But as 2015 progressed, things seem to improve a little. The APS attack was a wake-up call to the nation that the fight against terrorism is a fight for all of us, not just the Armed Forces and security agencies. A 20-point National Action Plan (NAP) was formulated to bring together all government institutions and agencies to take all steps to eradicate terrorism. A series of initiatives and responsibilities were established within the NAP and some have already been implemented, contributing to a drop in the levels of terrorist activity. However, there is still much more to do and this will require the commitment of all the government authorities at all levels of government throughout 2016.
To find core reasons for why 2015 was a better than expected year, we can look to the extraordinary success of Zarb-e-Azb in the tribal areas. After 18 months of military operations, the benefits have really kicked in, and most of FATA, including North Waziristan, is now cleared and peace is returning. The last few pockets of resistance close to Afghan Border were, at the time of writing, being cleared.
In a mid-December update from Director General of ISPR, Lieutenant General Asim Bajwa, he apprised that the main terrorist infrastructure has been dismantled and their links with sleeper cells have largely been disrupted. Intelligence Based Operations (IBOs) continue to identify and break up remaining cells. At least 3,400 terrorists killed and 837 hideouts, from where they carried out their terrorist activities, have been destroyed. More than 13,200 IBOs have been conducted across the country in which 183 hardcore terrorists have been killed, and 21,193 arrested. That’s quite a success story.
But this success has come at a heavy cost. Some 488 officers and men of Pakistan Army, Frontier Corps KPK, Balochistan, and Sindh Rangers, sacrificed their lives and 1,914 were injured in Operation Zarb-e-Azb by mid-December 2015. The terrain, in which the Army has taken on the terrorists in FATA, is a hard place to fight – the terrain is extremely challenging. So it makes the success of Zarb-e-Azb all the more impressive, especially when you compare it to the huge International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) operations conducted over many more years, next door in Afghanistan.
With peace returning to FATA, more than 110,000 families displaced by the operations, have already returned to the various agencies, including North Waziristan. The cost of re-settling the displaced families has already placed a substantial financial burden on the country and will continue to do so. But this is a small price to pay for peace. We should not neglect these people, as the country owes them a great deal. They have lost so much to allow the military to bring us greater peace and stability. In 2016, most of the remaining 192,000 displaced families will return. This is a major achievement. Many doubted that this could be achieved in such a time frame but a coordinated effort between government and Army, with additional support from international donors and civil society, has made this possible. In 2016, there will also be a stronger focus on the rehabilitation and reconstruction phase in FATA to ensure there is proper funding, technical and other support available, to ensure proper restoration of the area and improvement in living standards to ensure future stability.
Security and law and order issues across the entire country are improving. Following the establishment of military courts to deal with terrorists, 142 cases have been referred, 55 cases decided, 87 cases are in process and 31 hard-core terrorists have been convicted. This is a significant step forward. Too often in the past, those who have committed terrorist acts escaped justice in the civilian courts as fear prevented judges, lawyers and witnesses from proceeding against them, freeing them to strike again.
Karachi is becoming more peaceful since Rangers commenced operations there to improve the law and order situation. In 2016, Rangers will continue their operations making Karachi a much safer place for residents and visitors. And Balochistan, so long a troubled province, has taken great steps forward towards peaceful solutions with many separatists and militants handing in their weapons to the Government and Army and agreeing to become peaceful. The overall improvement in security and law and order across the country has given people more confidence to attend public festivities and national events for the first time in several years making national and Independence Day celebrations a more joyous time. While it would be naïve to think that there will be no incidents – and as I was writing this, an attack at Parachinar in Kurram Agency – the overall situation looks like it will continue to improve in 2016.
2016 will also see a change in the Chief of Army Staff. The current COAS, General Raheel Sharif, has captured the public’s imagination and confidence with his ‘can do’ leadership and achieved a great deal during his tenure. Towards the end of 2016, his tenure is due to come to an end and a new COAS will be appointed. Regardless of whether his tenure is extended as some have suggested as a possibility, or whether a new COAS is appointed, the country can be confident that matters, related to the defence of the nation, will continue to progress in positive direction.
Relations with India soured in 2015 with an increase in ceasefire violations by India on the Line of Control and the Working Boundary, leading to the deaths of a number of Pakistani civilians, and Rangers. The vitriolic rhetoric by leaders in India against Pakistan was ramped up and despite the agreement made on the sidelines of the Ufa meeting for talks to be held between the two countries, nothing eventuated as India insisted the only agenda item would be terrorism while Pakistan had a broader agenda including Kashmir.
However, as the year drew to a close, a breakthrough appears to have been achieved, to the surprise of many. The External Affairs Minister of India, Smt. Sushma Swaraj led an Indian delegation to the Fifth Ministerial Conference of the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process held in Islamabad on December 8-9, 2015. During the visit, she called on Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, and held discussions with the Adviser to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs, Mr. Sartaj Aziz.
According to a statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, during the visit, Minister Swaraj and Mr. Aziz condemned terrorism and resolved to cooperate to eliminate it. They noted the successful talks on terrorism and security related issues in Bangkok by the two NSAs and decided that the NSAs will continue to address all issues connected to terrorism. The Indian side was assured of the steps being taken to expedite the early conclusion of the Mumbai trial. Both sides, accordingly, agreed to a comprehensive bilateral dialogue and directed the foreign secretaries to work out the modalities and schedule of the meetings under the dialogue including peace and security, CBMs, Jammu & Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek, Wullar
Barrage/Tulbul Navigation Project, economic and commercial cooperation, counterterrorism, narcotics control and humanitarian issues, people-to-people exchanges and religious tourism. The two foreign secretaries were tasked to work out the details of the comprehensive bilateral dialogue and the level of interaction in various working groups and also decide the modalities and schedule of the meetings under the dialogue.
If the comprehensive talks do actually eventuate, it will be a positive step forward. However, as we have seen in the past, as was the case at Ufa, the bonhomie seems to fade quickly and the ceasefire violations start again. If the talks do stay on track, then the people in the villages on the Pakistan side of the Line of Control and Working Boundary should be able to look forward to a more peaceful year ahead.
The Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process, is focused on a peaceful and stable Afghanistan and a secure and prosperous region through a series of Confidence Building Measures including disaster management, counter terrorism, counter narcotics, trade, commerce and investment, education, and documents. Pakistan is a key player amongst the many member and supporting countries of this important process which was initiated in 2011, and has hosted a number of meetings including the December Ministerial Conference and two Regional Technical Group meetings on the Disaster Management Confidence Building Measure. Pakistan is the Co-Chair of the Disaster Management Confidence Building Measures, which brings together a number of the member countries to focus on this important issue. Heart of Asia is proving to be an effective grouping of nations with a number of successful steps already achieved as we saw at the Islamabad meeting.
In addition to the attendance of the Indian Minister and the outcomes arising out of that, there were indications of renewed warmth in relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. President Ashraf Ghani was another high profile visitor for the Heart of Asia Conference in Islamabad and held positive meetings with the Prime Minister and also the Chief of Army Staff. Shortly after these meetings, the Head of the Afghan Intelligence, Raimatullah Nabil, announced his resignation citing his disagreement with the President’s statements in Pakistan on a more positive cooperation. Most likely, he was pushed. Nabil has been a constant negative force in countering Pakistan's earnest attempts to help broker peace talks in Afghanistan. It is hoped that these recent developments will pave the way for closer ties in the coming year. This will be a very positive outcome for both countries in trying to find solutions to a lasting peace in Afghanistan. With a resurgence of attacks by the Taliban in Afghanistan in recent months, this becomes more urgent. Peace in Afghanistan will bring positive outcomes for Pakistan and the region. It would again be naïve to think that this complex process can be achieved quickly but we should at least hope for some forward steps in 2016.
Natural disasters again made their presence felt in Pakistan in 2015. Glacial lake outburst, cloud outburst and flash floods hit various parts of Chitral in July causing extensive damages to houses, mosques, bridges, roads, irrigation and water channels. The communication infrastructure has also been severely affected. Fortunately, loss of life was low but a large number of people were cut off in this mountainous terrain.
Then on October 26, an earthquake struck the same areas, killing 232 people, damaging 97,995 homes, as well as infrastructure including roads, telecommunications, clinics and schools. The total cost of rehabilitation and reconstruction of the areas affected by the floods and the earthquake is estimated at more than USD 500 million. Yet, despite the endless chain of disasters over the years, very little has been done to reduce the risks posed by the catalogue of potential disasters that can cause massive damage in Pakistan. The direction we need to take in Disaster Management in 2016 needs to include a strong focus on Disaster Risk Reduction and Community Based Disaster Risk Management. Reducing risk reduces that cost of natural disasters, and leads to a far more resilient country, yet there is little investment by governments at any level in this.
But what of the rest of the world and how will what’s happening elsewhere affect Pakistan? The Middle East is in chaos and it, really, is difficult to keep up with who is bombing whom. The misery of innocent civilians as their homes, neighbourhoods and their entire countries, are reduced to rubble, has created a refugee crisis not seen since World War II. The humanitarian needs of these millions of people caught up in the conflict and fleeing Iraq and Syria, is causing extreme pressure on donor funding, drawing much away from other countries like Pakistan. Should there be a major disaster in Pakistan in 2016, the amount of international funding available to supplement the national efforts is likely to be severely reduced. This will make life very difficult for those affected.
With peace comes the chance of prosperity and also an improvement in investor confidence. Investment is too big a topic for this article and better addressed by those who specialize in economic matters. But there is something else that will enhance investor confidence and that is solving Pakistan’s energy crisis. The government has promised to do this by 2017 so let’s hope we start to see improvements in 2016. What a difference this will make to business and living in Pakistan!
Pakistan is a developing country so we should not compare ourselves with developed countries. Instead, we should focus on what we have to do to achieve developed status one day in the future. The country has almost 200 million people and many challenges to overcome to lift people out of poverty and ensure education, healthcare, housing, and food security for all. This will take a long time but it would be nice to get to the end of 2016 and see positive steps forward have been made. Despite the challenges, Pakistan will continue to face, to me it seems to be a safer and more peaceful place than so many other countries now. With attacks on the decline, a more positive spirit, and engagement with the neighbours on a fair and equitable level, we can move forward.
So will it be a happy new year for Pakistan? We cannot know what lies ahead but some of these positive indicators certainly should allow us to take from Jinnah’s words and have hope, courage and confidence. Happy New Year, Pakistan!
The writer is Australian Disaster Management and Civil-Military Relations Consultant, based in Islamabad where she consults for Government and UN agencies. She has also worked with ERRA and NDMA. [email protected]
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