Game of hardball is on : The Tribune India

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Game of hardball is on

Pakistan being pushed as never before to set its economic house in order

Game of hardball is on

IN KNOTS: The crisis in Pakistan is in the process of coming to a head. Reuters



Vivek Katju

Ex-Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs

PAKISTAN continues to be in the grip of multiple crises — economic, political and security. The terrible terrorist incident on January 30 in the Peshawar police lines mosque which led to the death of over a hundred persons, mainly policemen, was only one terrible manifestation of the present situation. Even one of these problem areas, by itself, should have led to serious introspection about state policies in the security and political establishments, but all three simultaneously confronting the country should have engineered a sense of emergency. That is nowhere to be seen. Indeed, reports indicate that Pakistani participants in the recent Track II India-Pakistan meetings emphasised that there was no cause to worry; they pointed to life continuing as normal in Lahore and Islamabad!

What Pakistan needs is a serious introspection about state policies in the security and political establishments.

It’s true that PM Shehbaz Sharif has convened a meeting of all political parties and the military establishment to discuss the current situation, but there have been such meetings in the past. They led to statements assuring the people that the leaders will join hands to bring about real changes but in reality, they did not lead to basic changes in the country’s political and security direction. There is no reason to believe that the Shehbaz Sharif initiative would fare better than those of the past.

The macroeconomic situation of the country is very difficult. As of February 3, the Pakistan State Bank’s foreign exchange reserves had fallen to $3.09 billion. These were barely sufficient to cover three weeks of imports of vital commodities. Pakistan and the IMF are engaged in negotiations for the disbursement of the next tranche of the loan. Clearly, the IMF is insisting that Pakistan fulfils its commitments to reduce subsidies and improve tax compliance. The IMF attitude led Shehbaz Sharif to say on February 3 that: ‘Our economic challenge at this moment is unimaginable. The conditions we have to fulfil are beyond imagination.’ It also seems that Pakistan’s traditional donors are also showing impatience with the government’s desire to wriggle out of its IMF commitments and are therefore waiting for the fund’s action before they help Pakistan to stabilise the macroeconomic situation and that would also prevent the slide in the value of the Pakistani rupee as compared to the US dollar.

Pakistan has a flourishing informal economy which ensures a cushion for the people but foreign exchange is a necessity to ensure that imports of a vital nature, such as fuel and medicines, continue. The Sri Lanka example demonstrates the impact of a meltdown in government’s foreign exchange holdings. Thus, the Pakistani military and civilian leadership have no choice but to accept politically and, in some respects, even security-wise, difficult decisions that are being forced on the country. However, when push comes to shove, no major global power wants Pakistan to go the Afghanistan or Somalia way because of its nuclear weapons. But a game of hardball is in progress and Pakistan is being pushed as never earlier to set its economic house in order.

In her media briefing on February 2, the spokesperson for the Pakistan foreign ministry said: ‘Pakistan expects sincere cooperation from the Interim Afghan Government to address the challenge of terrorism and hopes that Kabul lives to the commitments made to the international community in this regard.’ She added, ‘…we would reiterate our expectation that no country should allow its territory to be used for perpetrating terrorism against Pakistan.’ The irony that Pakistan continues to use its territory to sponsor terrorism against India may have escaped the Pakistani spokesperson but it is surely known to the Taliban in Kabul; in fact, its Haqqani branch has been used by Pakistan in the past to undertake violent acts against Indians, including diplomats and military personnel in Kabul.

Thus, Pakistani protestations against the Taliban support to the Tehreek-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan (TTP) would not have much of an impact on Kabul. Indeed, TTP terrorism in Pakistan is also part of the Pakistan-Taliban game. And, for all its talk and actions, the Pakistan state’s options on the TTP issue are limited by its own refusal to continue to abandon terrorism as part of its security doctrine against India. There is no evidence that the new army chief, Gen Asim Munir, has the capacity to reimagine Pakistani security doctrines, leave alone take it towards territorial nationalism.

The political crisis in Pakistan is in the process of coming to a head. For both the Pakistani establishment and the ruling PDM alliance government, the real issue is how to deal with Imran Khan, who retains popularity in Punjab, Pakistan’s most significant province. Shehbaz Sharif and other members of the alliance’s preferred option would be to have him disqualified from elections by the courts. That process is on, but it’s not certain if the courts would go to that drastic extent. Meanwhile, Munir has, as yet, not revealed his hand. Will he be willing to go to the extent that former army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa went to ensure the Nawaz Sharif-led PML (N)’s defeat in the 2018 elections? National elections will have to take place by mid-October with the current National Assembly’s term ending in mid-August. Thereafter, a caretaker government will be appointed, as provided in the Constitution to conduct elections.

Meanwhile, the more immediate political issue concerns holding elections for the Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Assemblies which were under Imran Khan’s control and have been dissolved. Caretaker governments are in place. Elections have to be conducted by mid-April. With the austerity measures being forced by the IMF, the PML (N) has major difficulties, and if Imran Khan and his allies sweep the Punjab elections, the country’s political scene will become far more complex. The PML (N) will be on the back foot and it is then that the army leadership will have to take a call, notwithstanding its protestations that it is now ‘apolitical’. The fact that there is a bad history between Imran Khan and Munir is an added complexity.

All in all, this year is full of imponderables and major problems for Pakistan.


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