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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Pakistan’s cornered tiger

Pakistan’s establishment has cornered itself into today’s reality - an economy in freefall, friends backing away slowly enough to go unnoticed in the panic of the days, the traditional foe to the East rubbing its hands gleefully at all of us having together done to ourselves what it couldn't manage in 75 years.

All eyes in Pakistan are on the PDM. What is this 14-member coalition up to exactly? How did this motley crew take an economy growing at nearly 6% in early 2022 to bankruptcy and resurgent militancy in under a year? Is this just a bad government, or is what they’ve managed to do the plan? To more observant citizens, the answer lies in the background, in the Pakistani establishment.

Let’s go back to April 2022, from when it is tempting to frame the ouster of PM Khan through a cash-injected Vote of No Confidence in the Pakistani National Assembly as a purely democratic act. Something was off, not just about the event, but everything that followed thereafter, not least of which is the continuous (certainly, unexpected) political circus and public outrage against the Pakistani establishment in heartland Punjab.

Khan and team insist the VONC was not the work of Pakistani actors alone. From what has unfolded in Pakistan since that day, there seems a clear quid pro quo built into the equation: cases for regional concessions. It is tempting to say the concessions are linked to US bases in Pakistan to counter terrorism on Afghan soil, especially following Khan’s ‘Absolutely Not’ interview in June 2021. In exchange, the argument goes, compliant political leaders (PDM) regain control over state institutions that are probing corruption charges against them. The system looks the other way, the status quo lives to see another day.

Read more: Pakistan would ‘absolutely not’ allow US bases in Pakistan, PM Khan

Officials in Washington may not have liked (and understandably still don’t) what they’ve heard from Pakistan about themselves (or their colleagues) since April 2022. Despite attempts to distance itself from Khan’s allegations of a US stake in the VONC that removed him, no significant diplomatic attempts have been made by the US administration to reinforce a Pak-US relationship based on principles of representative government and social protections for the people of Pakistan. To the contrary, the narrative seems to have returned to the singular agenda point of regional security, a script with which Pakistan (through its military establishment) is all too familiar.

President Biden’s essentialist comments – casual as they may have been – on ‘dangerous’ Pakistan haven’t helped. Neither has the confidence with which Lisa Curtis, the Centre for New American Security’s Director of Indo-Pacific Security Program, described the office of Pakistan’s Army Chief – not the elected Prime Minister – as central to the US-Pak relationship. The analytical viewpoint from DC, too, appears unremorseful in concluding that the interaction between the two is transactional, and not even between civilian counterparts. Contrast this with the strategic relationship (as part of the Quad) that the US now maintains with India, which indicates a sharing of values, responsibilities, interests, and progress.

Diagnosing responsibility

Following a pattern of the past many decades, US policy continues to place the burden of responsibility for civilian supremacy in Pakistan upon its people, without adjudicating its own contributions – direct or implied – to aberrations in the country’s democratic process. For instance, in the 1980s, when US foreign policy required Pakistan’s assistance in the proxy war in Afghanistan to counter the Soviet Union, engaging with a military dictator appeared the least of anyone’s concerns. A similar precedent can be recalled from the tenure of the recently deceased General (retd.) Pervez Musharraf.

But Pakistan is equally, if not more, at fault. Not too long ago, this country thought itself home to one of the very best, all-mighty establishments in the region, sometimes the world. The idea that military bureaucrats could make for better rulers than elected individuals answerable to the people was sold to the Pakistani people for decades as part of a larger package that undervalued a public discourse on the primacy of the law.

The US can therefore be best understood as capitalising for its regional interests what had already been made palatable to Pakistanis by their own ‘intelligence’. In that sense, perhaps the US-Pak relationship was never genuinely strategic. It was always transactional, Pakistan was never the equal, always the willing second-in-command, looking to nods of approval from anyone but its own.

Let’s take the 1980s when the Pakistani establishment actively participated in the orchestration of a proxy jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. At the time, it was the Soviets who had been conducting geographical surveys of Afghanistan in the 1960s and 70s. To push them out, and to even break the Soviet Union over this war at a time when their economy was in disarray was touted as a major success by the United States, with ‘ally’ Pakistan.

Read more: How US coerced Pakistan into war on terror

Rising resource stakes

In 2010, following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, another geographical survey was conducted in Afghanistan. This time, it was the US itself that did so, mapping some USD 1-3 trillion mineral reserves across the country, with possibly the world’s second-largest lithium reserves and a sizeable amount of iron ore, aluminium, gold, copper and precious stones.

An August 2022 note by the Brookings Institution analyses China’s interest in investing in Afghanistan’s lithium reserves, observing that tapping into Afghanistan’s mineral reserves is harder than it seems. The technologies and skills required aren’t available locally. But that might be exactly where countries like China benefit from the investment. They claim the earliest rights to mining exercises, whilst key Western players face pressure back home to use sanctions to win Taliban compliance on human/women’s rights issues.

Pakistan faces a similar issue with its large reserves of coal, copper, and even gold – doesn’t have the right technologies or skills, struggles to document unsettled lands in the West (ex-FATA), and faces insurgencies and terrorism emanating from agitated local populations. Through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Pakistan seeks a high-risk, high-return marketisation strategy for some of these reserves (such as the incorporation of 4 HubCo projects into CPEC). The projects also bring Pakistan to the list of countries signed up for China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI).

To some commentators like Shabbar Zaidi, an accountant and former Chairman of the Federal Board of Revenue, Pakistan’s existing economic crisis has safely relegated the country to the annals of history. Pakistan is, according to him, a has-been in the race of 21st-century emerging economies. But his analysis has absolutely nothing to say about all the riches that lie under the feet of 230 million Pakistanis or their Western neighbour, and what will happen to whomever gains first access to them.

Read more: Shabbar Zaidi: Experienced taxman facing a formidable challenge

The story of reserves does not end here. Flashpoint Kashmir is the source of water for Indus Valley agriculture; Central Asia is sitting on significant gas and other natural assets; Gwadar port can change the face of future shipping arrangements between the Middle East and lands up to Southeast Asia. A familiar geostrategic struggle is at play in Pakistan’s neighbourhood – a second round of The Great Game over Asia’s natural resources. Economic giants China and the United States are obvious players, the former through the BRI, which is countered by the latter’s piecemeal investment/aid efforts, often inadequately and ineffectively, as acknowledged by a Council of Foreign Relations assessment.

Russia, though, looks to re-emerge in the region on the back of economic trade and military posture (such as Ukraine) in a bid to counter what it perceives as American hegemony through its Bipolarity 2.0 programme (a break, and shift, in US power in favour of European and Asian countries like China and India). This explains the offer of subsidised oil and wheat to PM Khan’s government in February 2022.

In his piece for the Asian Survey, though, scholar Christopher Clary writes both pragmatically and despondently about the scope and future of a Russia-Pakistan relationship. Looking at the history between the two countries, Clary emphasises two painful realities for Pakistan: a sustained and solid relationship between India and Russia; and a continuously geocompromised relationship between Pakistan and Russia because of unstable Afghanistan in between. Is it surprising, then, that a key player in Afghanistan for the past 2 decades has been a Cold War-era foe to Russia (then Soviet Union), the United States?

The Western ‘front’

The most important question in this story, however, is whether these are the insights with which Pakistani intelligence is planning the country’s next strategy. Once, Pakistan had the grounds to think of itself as a geostrategic player, but that narrative is fast receding. Already sharing a flashpoint with its eastern neighbour, Pakistan is now also disturbed along its (fenced) Western border. The mistake? Assuming that time stands still, much like the establishment’s playbook.

A historic ‘ally’ has not assumed government in Afghanistan. On the contrary, the Taliban is now the biggest thorn in the country’s side, a government in Kabul that – despite no official recognition by any country in the world – is continuing to negotiate trade and economic ties with both India and China, but blatantly refusing to acknowledge any TTP presence on Afghan soil. (The Peshawar terrorist attack on a police lines mosque was, in fact, used by the TTA to snub Pakistan’s intelligence agencies.)

But the Taliban are not to blame for this game. Pakistan is. In the 10 months since Bilawal Bhutto was made Foreign Minister of Pakistan at an incredibly sensitive moment of transition in a neighbouring country, he has not made one official visit to Afghanistan himself. The PDM government’s originally combative stance on the TTP – including following it into Afghanistan, from where even historic empires like the British colonial project or the modern-day US have pined to run away – suggested a profound lack of understanding, both of region and matter. Its retraction and covering up of such statements in response to Taliban warnings over sovereignty rights only reinforce this impression.

Read more: Pakistan, Afghan Taliban & TTP: What went wrong?

War of words alone has not been the problem. The PDM government’s abrupt and persisting suspension of development and social support funds for ex-FATA have interrupted an important recovery and stability process underway at Pakistan’s Western border (including enhancement of domestic security and intelligence forces). This is a stance repeatedly taken by the Pakistan Tehreek e Insaaf, and what has now informed a series of apolitical ‘peace marches’ across the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

A naïve vilification across Pakistan’s liberal elite circles of former PM Khan for his insistence on mind over machine when dealing with the TTP reveals a disturbing disconnect between cities and peripheries on understanding what Pakhtunkhwa’s conflict-ridden memory actually needs, if it is to ever fully mainstream into contemporary Pakistan. A similar conundrum exists for Balochistan, but that is a matter for a completely different day.

Within this regional moment, what is Pakistan’s establishment thinking? Indeed, what has it been thinking, having successfully had Pakistan surrounded on all sides by antagonised agents. Pakistan’s establishment has cornered itself into today’s reality, with an economy in freefall, friends backing away slowly enough to go unnoticed in the panic of the days, the traditional foe to the East rubbing its hands gleefully at all of us having together done to ourselves what it couldn’t manage in 75 years.

Traditional ‘allies’ to the West seem on a double-edged mission, both to check Pakistan, but also to move on from it. Official dialogue is nowhere to be seen between Pakistan and Afghanistan, especially after an attack on the Pakistani mission in Kabul. If word on the street (and a series of corresponding flight tracing images) is to be believed, the engagement with the US has reverted to its conventional pattern of patronage: funds for regional policing. A hybrid martial law fronted by a technocratic government may even be on the table for discussion.

Read more: The technocrat thought: Answer to Pakistan’s woes – Lt Gen (retd) Tariq Khan

Serving the people of Pakistan

The biggest, and most worrisome, difference for the Pakistani establishment should be the people of Pakistan’s unprecedented anger with the country’s armed forces, without whose support any further military action may become untenable. Often captured through the imagery of former Chief of Army Staff Qamar Bajwa, this outrage is increasingly directed towards any of the military’s hundreds of thousands of officers.

The theory that Pakistan’s military establishment exists (and long has) to serve as a client to the United States is not a new one, but today’s crossroads might be the Pakistani state’s best chance to lay it to rest. Just as regional neighbors have, through their respective economic and social investment decisions, moved on, so too must Pakistan. This starts with its prized establishment taking a historic step in the direction of its people, their welfare, their interests, and their protection.

Much like Tennyson’s Light Brigade, the Pakistani establishment, too, has long held that theirs is not to reason why, theirs is but to do or die. This time, let there be honour in doing that which is for, of, and by the people of Pakistan. This time, let the wild charge be to support a free, fair, and organic election at the earliest. Let the world wonder; let them honour this democratic charge the Pakistani establishment made.

The author is a social science researcher in Pakistan. She holds a doctorate from the University of Oxford, where she was Pakistan’s 2010 Rhodes Scholar. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.