'Ideologically confused' Pakistan's murky past haunts its present and future

Pakistan had assiduously sought to acquire “strategic depth” against India in Afghanistan by installing the Taliban, but that has now becomes its “terror depth,” security analysts say.  They lament that the western border has become "riskier" than the eastern one with India.

Mahendra Ved Feb 03, 2023
Terror attacks in Peshawar’s Police Lines (Twitter)

Back-to-back terror attacks, the one in Peshawar’s Police Lines thumbing the nose at the Army’s General Headquarters, a stressed economy that compels surrender to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) preconditions, shortage of basic commodities – all this amid, and exacerbated by, the zero-sum game politicians have been playing. The year 2023 has begun for Pakistan with serious problems all around. 

Foreign exchange reserves can buy only two weeks’ imports. Wheat flour, the daily staple, is in short supply and sold in the black market. Media reports say a bag of 20 kg costs PKR 3,000, up from PKR 1200, since one of the world’s major wheat growers experienced floods last summer.

Power snapped nationwide for two days last week as the producers citing infrastructural issues complained of machinery and spare shortage. Car plants have stopped production without imported accessories. Ditto with much of the industrial production.  

The money crunch forced Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government to enforce inflation-triggering and unpopular measures like fuel price hikes as the global lender began its ninth review. The IMF delegation’s much-awaited arrival and a re-adjustment with the dollar rate - a euphemism for devaluation announced last week - helped the bourses to soar high.

No free lunch

Pakistan has a record of seeking IMF loans 21 times, reneging on meeting the pre-conditions committed and missing out on subsequent tranches. Its current requirement is a whopping USD 33 billion.

Patron China is not into giving loans, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE have helped but partially. They have issued a no-free-lunch warning, asking Pakistan to introduce wide-ranging reforms. They are those that the elite, both military and civil, and the vocal middle classes have scuttled over the years.

To return to terror-triggered violence, militants carried out 44 attacks killing 134 and injuring 236 in January. Pakistan is battling what was once seen triumphantly as the state’s “strategic asset” against India, Iran and Afghanistan. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the most powerful of them, has killed over 70,000 people. They include this week’s 101 in the Peshawar mosque. More followed at a police station in Mianwali within two days. TTP attacks have surged since it called off a ceasefire pact last December.

The TTP operates from Afghanistan’s no-man border region. Kabul denies sheltering them or giving any tacit support. But the fact remains that the two Talibans are ideological blood brothers. Thousands of TTP fighters had helped the Taliban return to Kabul with a nod from Islamabad that had sheltered them for two decades. Now, Pakistan’s hopes for a quid pro quo in reining in the TTP have been dashed.

Pakistan had assiduously sought to acquire “strategic depth” against India in Afghanistan by installing the Taliban, but that has now becomes its “terror depth,” security analysts say.  They lament that the western border has become "riskier" than the eastern one with India.  

Pakistan's duality with US

Pakistani nuclear physicist and activist Pervez Hoodbhoy wrote in Dawn (January 7, 2023) that the “TTP is undefeatable” as the civil and military rulers are in cahoots with them. “If Pakistan is to eventually defeat TTP and its backers in Kabul, our soldiers must know what they are fighting for and why. An ideologically confused (Pakistan) army cannot hope to fight and win. Without a clearly spelt-out cause, there cannot be a strong motivation. Else Pakistan will lose and TTP will triumph.”

He makes a telling comparison. “By official counts, there were 70,000 deaths from terrorism in 2002-2014, whereas Pakistanis killed in all four Pakistan-India wars add up to around 18,000.”    

‘Terrorism Has Returned’: Pakistan Grapples With Attack That Left 101 Dead,’ ran the New York Times headline on January 31, 2023. Despite its chaotic evacuation from Kabul in August/ September 2021 after nearly two decades, the Biden administration is ready to help Pakistan fight terrorism.  But Pakistan lives in two worlds: the government of the day seeks American civil and military largesse, directly or otherwise, and guards American interests in the region, but the Opposition foments anti-American sentiment with help from the Muslim clergy and the conservative classes.

The current cheerleader is former premier Imran Khan, known for his sympathies for the militants. When in power, he preferred talks to action against them. Khan insists that the US ‘conspired’ to get him voted out in the National Assembly last April and calls his opponents ‘puppets’ running an ‘imported’ government. For the Sharif government to openly invite the US would be politically suicidal.

Boosted by the chaos that the Sharif government has failed to manage, Khan, still the darling of sections of the army and the middle classes, has been demanding a snap poll. He wants to gamble, but there are doubts after his open criticism of the two pillars sustaining Pakistan’s polity, the army and the US.

Army in a tight corner

The Sharifs, and the Bhutto-Zardaris who share power at the national level, have pushed the polls away. They need time to get the economy out of the abyss. They also hope to wear out an out-of-power Khan. Both are proving difficult. Significantly, this is also said to be with consent from the military. It would not like Khan, its protégé till recently, to return to power and challenge the two 'pillars'

Still all-powerful and sought by all, the army has, however, placed itself into a tight corner after its failed bid to keep out the two tried and tested political dynasties and promoted Khan in the 2018  elections. Under Khan’s relentless attack meant to keep himself politically relevant, the army is forced to maintain a low profile and a façade of political neutrality.

Nobody seriously believes in this neutrality. The political stakeholders anxiously look for and need its support. Now that the army’s political choices have been exhausted, which individual, party or alliance it will back to suit its needs in the near future is being speculated.

This tussle has added to political instability. Every other decision --- of the executive and its investigative and enforcement agencies, the legislature or the election commission -- is challenged before the Supreme Court.  And the highest court has a past record of playing the political game in removing elected governments through questionable verdicts, even endorsing military-imposed martial law.  There is no lasting solution to Pakistan’s woes, most of them self-created.

Terror strikes back

Political turmoil may persist because of the elections, as of now scheduled for August this year. Assuming the IMF and ‘friends’ chip in, the economic conditions may take a long time to improve but are bound to leave Pakistan in deeper debt. 

While these two problems - political and economic - can be perhaps managed over a period, albeit relatively, Pakistan’s war on terror remains the most daunting. It plays out independently of the two. The involvement in Afghanistan, and the need to keep the Kashmir pot boiling with India nurture it.

Peshawar, the scene of the TTP’s suicide attack this week, cannot escape the role it played as the Mujahideen's springboard city for the long war in Afghanistan and as the Pakistan Army's GHQs. In the 1980s, it was the jihad against the Russians and then, in the US-led “war on terror”, after 9/11.  

Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah has accepted that it was a collective mistake to nurture the Mujahideen and go to war with a global force. “ We created Mujahideen and then they became terrorists," he said in the national assembly. Imran Khan had also expressed similar sentiments earlier. But none seem to have the desire, the capacity, or the vision to reverse the self-defeating role that Pakistan has come to play.  

(The author is a veteran journalist and South Asia watcher. Views are personal. He can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com)

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