By B.G. Verghese
A visit to Pakistan lays bare the uncertain future facing this troubled country despite much bravado and whistling in the dark. The economy is in parlous condition with growth no more than three per cent, 12% inflation, falling FDI, IMF support withdrawn and repayments due next March, public enterprises bleeding, power cuts, a gas shortage, unemployment, a continuing low HDI performance resulting in failure to meet several millennium development goals. With implementation of the 18th Amendment, a structural problem has arisen with increased revenues going to the provinces and “inflexible” expenditures remaining with the federal government. The “War on Terror”, howsoever calculated, is said to have cost the country $60-70 bn whereas US aid has been no more than $18 bn.
The saving grace has been buoyancy in the rural economy with bumper production of wheat, cotton, sugar and milk and a transfer of income from the towns to the countryside. Defence expenditure accounts for 18 % of the revenue budget and internal security an additional 10 %. The tax to GDP ratio is low and collections lower. Poor governance, mismanagement and corruption are held responsible for this sorry state of affairs. The extensive 2010 and more limited 2011 floods devastated large swathes of the Indus basin. Independent surveys attribute this not merely to aberrant rainfall, deforestation and consequent heavy erosion in the upper catchments, but poor maintenance of barrage and canal infrastructure that gave way and have yet to be fully repaired. Despite all of this, opulent (urban) and feudal life styles have not been affected.
Pakistan continues to be afflicted by political turbulence and military assertiveness in governance. The Memogate crisis (following an alleged missive drafted by the former Pakistan ambassador in Washington, Hussain Haqqani, at the instance of President Zardari and handed over to the US military by a controversial Pakistan- born US businessman, Mansoor Ijaz, pleading for US pressure on Gen Kayani to avert a coup after the inglorious and incomprehensible Osama bin Laden episode, in return for a more zealous Pakistani role in the War on Terror), incensed the Army and has given it greater ascendancy over the civil government. The Foreign Minister, Ms Hina Rabbani Khar, admitted that Memogate had provoked questions. The Army had “played a larger-than-life role in the history of Pakistan” and the assertion of civil power in the existing democratic set up had to be an “evolutionary process”.
It was at this delicate moment that US-NATO forces bombed a border post, killing 24 Pakistan military personnel in the fog of war. Outrage and fury marked nationwide demonstrations denouncing the Americans for deliberately and repeatedly violating Pakistan’s sovereignty with drone attacks along the AfPak border. The engagement lasted two hours with ascending ferocity despite US-ISAF commands being informed. The Americans aver they were given permission by to engage a Taliban riding party but the Pakistanis assert they were provided the wrong coordinates. The other theory is that the Taliban decoyed the US into action by firing on its aircraft. Both sides have ordered inquiries, pending which Obama has refused to apologise, though senior US officials have regretted the loss of life.
Many issues arise. US forces have not infrequently been responsible for “collateral damage”. while Pakistan has a long record of violating Indian (and Afghan) sovereignty through well-established cross-border strikes. Despite its protestations of innocence about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, the Pakistan Army had sheltered him under its eye in Abbottabad. Since the Army does not admit to singular incompetence, complicity alone explains what happened.
As in Abbottabad, so in the Mohmand border post strike, the Pakistan Air Force or ground forces did not engage the intruders? Why not? In both cases the Pak military presumably thought discretion the better part of valour as it feared escalation would cost it dear. However, Pakistan has closed all US supply routes to Afghanistan and ordered the US to vacate the Shamsi air base in Bolochistan from where it has mounted drone attacks on targets in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Curiously, but typically, the Shamsi based was leased to the UAE (for what ??) which had in turn sub-leased it to the US. So much for sovereignty!
Pakistan has declared it is reviewing its entire relationship with the US. It will huff and puff but is unlikely to break its military-strategic alliance with Washington. China is not willing, nor militarily able just yet, to take on the US role of playing military godfather and banker to Pakistan. It is already getting all it wants strategically from Islamabad by providing it military supplies, nuclear reactors and assistance to upgrade and extend the Karakoram Highway, build the Neelum-Jhelum and Diamer-Bhasha dams and undertake mining projects in Gilgit-Baltistan. It has also proposed a trans-Karakoram rail link from Tibet and Xinjiang to Gwadar and an oil/gas pipeline along a similar alignment.
With its economy on drip, Islamabad needs US aid as much as the US needs Pakistan’s cooperation to sustain an effective presence in Afghanistan. Therefore, the current stand-off is likely to be followed by a rapprochement, continuing US aid and more elbow room for Islamabad to position itself as top-dog in Afghanistan when US-IASF militarily pull out in 2014. Pakistan is talking to its own Taliban as a first step. Its formal boycott of the Bonn conference on Afghanistan will not necessarily detract from that meet. The fact is that the US is part of the problem rather than of the solution in Afghanistan. The best option would be to secure a truce in Afghanistan, regionalise a reconciliation and reconstruction programme for it (with Pakistan, Iran, India, China, Russia, Turkmenistan, Tadjikistan and others), with US-European and World Bank backing. The object should be to rebuild its infrastructure and economy and restore to a neutral Afghanistan its traditional role as a thriving crossroads and international commercial hub.
Unfortunately, Pakistan is still caught in a hate-India identity crisis, reflected in its uncorrected school text books, and the fetishism it has developed about J&K. The last week of November saw the Jamaat-ud-Dawa take school children from Faisalabad to Lahore to protest the US/NATO Mohmand air strike. The speeches spoke of plans to Talibanise Pakistan, wreak vengeance on “Christains and Americans” and wage jihad against the US and India.
The decision to extend most-favoured nation treatment to India and promote trade and investment is greatly to be welcomed. But, tolerance for JuD hate rallies suggest that, for some, this could be no more than a tactical move to tide over a difficult time. Hopefully, the opening of trade and investment it will be truly transforming. Some weeks ago, the widow of Moshe Dayan, the Israeli hero of the 1967 war, wrote “Zionism has run its course”. The same is true of the “Ideology of Pakistan”, born of a hollow and divisive two-nation theory. A recent article in Friday Times, Islamabad, commented, “By now everyone in Pakistan should at least suspect that being ‘not Indian’ isn’t a strong enough foundation on which to build a country”. How true.