To compound the social and security churn, relations between the Army and the selected Prime Minister Imran Khan, have deteriorated as well.
When members of the Baloch Liberation Army attacked two Pakistani military camps in the Panjgur and Noshki districts of Balochistan and killed seven Frontier Corps soldiers, it was the third such attack in a month. Ten soldiers had been killed in a similar attack in Kech district; eight others perished in bomb blasts in Dera Bugti and there have been 41 deaths in January alone. Attacks on Chinese nationals working on the Gwadar project have also increased. Seven Chinese personnel were abducted and killed, forcing Pakistan to pay an unprecedented $11.6 million to their families as compensation. The intensification of the insurgency in Balochistan is just one of the fault lines which are widening in Pakistan.
Waziristan seems to be in similar turmoil. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan are upping the ante there, and Islamic fundamentalists are extending their sway in the very hinterland. The nation is going through another period of great social, political and economic churn. It is a chaos that Pakistan has seen before, but somehow, they have always managed to stumble through. Undoubtedly, they will stumble through even now; but for how long? For the country to attain durable political, economic and social stability, there has to be a radical change in thinking—especially in its policies towards India. There are some indicators of that emerging, but whether it will take root as part of long-term national policy, is something that remains to be seen.
SNAKES IN THE BACKYARD
Pakistan’s moment of triumph in Afghanistan is rapidly unravelling. They have managed to run with the hares and hunt with the hounds during the US war in Afghanistan—getting aid from the US, while sheltering the Taliban and Al Qaeda leadership on its soil. After twenty years of war, they have succeeded in helping the Taliban take over Kabul, and even foisted their own men in the new Afghan government. With the return of the Taliban, they seem to have attained their much vaunted “strategic depth”. But the Taliban have not proved as pliant and obliging as they would have hoped. After decades of living in Pakistan, the Taliban have got used to moving freely on both sides of the Durand Line—a line that divides Pashtun tribes and families between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Taliban (like previous Afghan Governments) do not recognise the 2,640-kilometre-long Durand Line and in one of their first actions, their fighters dismantled sections of the border fence Pakistan has begun erecting along it. The Taliban victory could see a resurgence of unrest in Waziristan and the demand for Pashtunistan could well revive.
The victory of the Taliban has also emboldened the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. It has regrouped in areas along the Af-Pak border and now seeks to replicate the success of Afghanistan, by establishing the Islamic Emirates in Pakistan as well. After the fall of Kabul, their actions have intensified. There have been 46 attacks inside Pakistan by the TTP since August, and so emboldened have they become that they have refused a government ceasefire in December. Their campaign is likely to intensify and could be reminiscent of their actions in 2007-14, when they carried their attacks right into the very hinterland.
Complementing the growing militancy of the TTP are the activities of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik, Pakistan, an Islamic fundamentalist party that held Lahore and Karachi in a state of siege following a ban on the outfit. Amongst their more outrageous demands was the expulsion of the French ambassador for allegedly anti-Islamic remarks made by the French President. After initial bombast, the government capitulated, released their firebrand leader Saad Rizvi and other jailed cadres, and revoked the ban on the group. Ironically, the TLP is politically allied to the Imran Khan government and had been used by him, and the army, to topple Nawaz Sharif. The shoe is on the other foot now. The nurturing of radical Islamic organisations for use against India and for political gain, has been a long-standing element of Pakistani policy. But as these groups gain ground, they pose a danger to Pakistan itself. After all, as Hillary Clinton warned, “You cannot keep snakes in your backyard and expect them to only bite your neighbours.”
POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC CHURN
To compound the social and security churn, relations between the Army and the selected Prime Minister Imran Khan, have deteriorated as well. Things reached a head last November on the appointment of the new Director General, ISI (to which Imran Khan was forced to concede after a month of pique). The present Army Chief, General Bajwa, is due to retire this November. He has already been given a three-year extension by Imran, but would be hoping for another extension—something that could again test political-military relations.
The Army has already begun reaching out to opposition leaders—including Maryam Nawaz—and even members of Imran’s own party for more pliable alternatives. Without the Army’s support, Imran Khan’s government cannot survive, and most political analysts feel that it is unlikely to complete its full term.
And, of course, its endless economic travails continue. Its GDP has grown marginally to $280 billion (behind Bangladesh’s $350 billion, and India’s own $3.1 trillion), but has a staggering debt to GDP ratio of 87%. In this year, it owes $7.1 billion towards debt servicing alone ($3.8 billion to China), and a default could test it further. An aid tranche of $1 billion from the IMF (its 22nd), will see it through the immediate crisis—till the next one.
China has also promised $3 billion, but then Chinese aid comes with hidden costs. The $64 billion CPEC has not translated into tangible benefits for Pakistan. The projects and the profits have all gone to Chinese firms, with even the labour coming from China. As Pakistan turns to China, it could find itself drawn deeper in a spiralling debt trap, and could lose Gwadar and other prime locations in much the same way Sri Lanka lost Hambantota. Unfortunately, it has few alternatives as it has alienated itself from much of the world. The United States is still smarting at its double game in Afghanistan and Joe Biden has not so much as accepted a telephone call from Imran. Even the Saudis and the rest of the Arab world are piqued at Pakistan’s attempts to project itself as the leader of the Muslim world (along with Turkey and Malaysia). Its indebtedness to China may end up with the loss of more than just economic sovereignty.
A CHANGE, OR JUST A SOUNDBITE?
Perhaps the accumulation of all this has raised some questions within Pakistan. General Bajwa spoke of the need to “bury the past and focus on economic security”. Its recently unveiled National Security Policy talks of 100 years of peace with India and reviving trade and commercial ties. But it eventually returns to the “core issue of Kashmir”. Should India and Pakistan develop trade and connectivity, it will add $15-20 billion annually to the economy. Should the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline take off, it will help alleviate Pakistan’s energy woes and the transit fees itself will bring in hefty revenues. Plus, of course, the costs they will save on security will contribute to economic growth. But for all this to materialise, the crux lies in the shunning of its abetment of terrorism in Kashmir, and its anti-India policies.
Even as talks of “100 years of peace” arise, over 400 terrorists are reportedly waiting on the Pakistani side of the LOC to be funnelled into India. Yes, there is a ceasefire along the LoC for the past year and it is in mutual interest that it holds. There is even talk of demilitarisation of Siachen, but that would entail that the 110 kilometre long Actual Ground Position Line on the Saltoro Ridge is authenticated and formally acknowledged. Plus, there would be the need for cast-iron guarantees that this barren, but sensitive triangle of land, would not be occupied in the future or used by China and Pakistan for collusive action. That guarantee can never be forthcoming, and demilitarisation, though welcome, would thus not be feasible.
As Pakistan goes through political, economic and social churn, perhaps it could take some time to self-introspect. Peace with India could help it replicate the success story of Bangladesh and truly put it on the road to “Naya Pakistan”. But for that, its stance of perpetual hostility towards India will have to stop. Will its Generals agree to that? The answer to that question will determine the direction that Pakistan is likely to take.
Ajay Singh is the author of five books and over 200 articles. He is a recipient of the Rabindranath Tagore International Award for Art and Literature, 2021.