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Pakistan’s Afghan problem including the TTP will continue to haunt medium to long term stability
Far from the maddening inflation and the resulting poverty that has touched all segments of the society there are some issues that continue to bedevil Pakistan’s future. Unless resolved those will soon outweigh our collective capacity to navigate out of the enveloping morass. Four of those in the political/security domain pose an existential challenge to our collective wisdom.
Pakistan’s Afghan problem including the TTP will continue to haunt medium to long term stability. The world has abandoned Afghanistan and we are fighting a rearguard battle to somehow avoid a devastating consequence. Afghanistan has been thrown in our lap as world’s largest refugee camp of 35 million people who await being fed and helped — we were fearing adding a million more to the three million that call Pakistan home. Similarities in ethnic stock and our recurring proclivity to influence what happens in the neighbouring state means we will also carry a part of the ticket. What it means to our political, security, economic and social milieu is best exhibited by what has occurred since we first got involved with Afghan issues. The Godzilla is out and about to envelop us. Imagine the task of feeding the 35 million with wheat, sugar and dollars and the pressure on our social structures whether education, health or simply law and order. We are already knee-deep in each of these strands of the labyrinth.
Add TTP to it all which bases out of Afghanistan and retains a loose union with the Afghan Taliban. This translates into an unintended leverage that Afghan Taliban can use to shape Pakistan’s responses to their debilitating state. Issues such as the diplomatic recognition they want Pakistan to push, open borders and free trade through the Pakistan territory without much control and scrutiny, thus gets a prioritised attention by Pakistan in return for the Afghans mediating a conflict that shouldn’t even exist. Collectively their added nuisance is enough to keep Pakistan engaged and wary till a way out to the Afghan quagmire is found. Talk of strategic depth in reverse.
Internally the rise and normalisation of the TLP as an equal opportunity player in the increasingly complex maze of Pakistani socio-politics means that both politics and the society are in a state of flux. Which way will this behemoth settle is to be seen but the recognition granted to it by accepting its political bona fides will now be difficult to walk out of once the die is cast. Whatever, it shall be tumultuous and consequential and entirely incongruous to a stable future. The days ahead are fraught with uncertainty. The confluence of these forces exercises its own dynamic in an already unstable environment. Thwarting these will further our strife while submitting before them will weaken the state and bestow unmatched capacity to these forces to alter our socio-cultural character. We are in for a ride of our lifetimes.
The unrest in the coastal belt of Balochistan including Gwadar and in Kharan and Awaran is another aggregation of disquiet among a robust segment of the society which has challenged the state over time on rights issues without finding the requisite attention of the political and administrative authorities in the province. Recent agitation in Gwadar has conflated multiple fault-lines bringing to the fore the disconnect between the power wielders and the people on basic matters of day-to-day lives. People seem to have been neglected even as the state sought broad-based strategic development through projects like CPEC. Including common citizens for early harvest of benefits would have paved the way for the necessary sustainability of the larger purpose in wide-scale development. Political and representative authority has somehow remained cocooned in capital Quetta never touching the lives of the ordinary citizen. It is time for this power instituted through popular processes to move out to the people to engage them and deliver to them what people expect of their leaders. Unless resolved in earnest it has the founding of a core around which disparate groups can find common purpose. A state in a lag already will then be unable to catch up as events propel beyond its control.
The fourth factor endangering medium to long-term stability is a foreign policy which appears in a state of suspended animation. Stuck somewhere between idealism of sovereignty and acute real-world restraints it essentially remains faltering and void of useful purpose. Sloganeering hasn’t been able to relieve bedeviling socio-political issues while rhetoric has centred around external objectives in Kashmir, India and Afghanistan. All this while the state has neglected what brewed within in menacing proportions gaining force and momentum with the capacity to impact state behaviour. Such ceding of space by the state lowers its credibility among international players. The nation remains bracketed with dependent nations heavily burdened by external assistance and friendly donor states, each with their own agenda, imperatives and preference.
Relations with China and the US have come to a head forcing a hiatus on Pakistan which can only be dangerous if it remains unaddressed. China, Pakistan’s iron-brother, brought her its largest foreign investment in decades. Our compulsion to take the Chinese hand without first ensuring own interests was tantamount to resigning our sovereignty for escaping economic direness. We trumpeted ourselves into the union falsifying our dependence and vulnerability with slogans of trashing the US as we delivered ourselves to the Chinese lap. We have a great amount of unfinished business with the US — it happens to hold the keys to most international financial arrangements and is Pakistan’s largest export destination outside of the EU. She did not take lightly to such jingoistic characterisation far from reality and put on hold whatever was left of the US-Pakistan association. As Pakistan struggles out of the self-inflicted imbroglio China too has held off further overtures of closeness between the two. CPEC lies in a state of inattention and is effectively stalled while the US is gauging if at all Pakistan factors in its future plans. One may call such recourse in foreign policy juvenile adventurism of ideational impulse.
One other factor critical to our long-term health as a nation is how the politics of the Middle East is changing and how we still seem to be stuck in the past in terms of our paradigm of engagement with the Middle East nations. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have set themselves on a different level in political, economic and security direction by breaking the chains which held them back in traditionalism and conservatism. If indeed Pakistan hopes to retain relevance with most Middle East nations it shall have to gallop into the new world and change its paradigm of engagement with these nations which in the last decade have turned greatly more liberal and progressive. First we will need to belong there and then be relevant enough in compatible levers of engagement in the new world of the Middle East. We have failed to appreciate the need for such wholesale change to our approach and the content we bring to a prospective relationship.
We will progress to view the economic and social challenges in the coming weeks.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 17th, 2021.
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