Previous year was quite eventful for Pakistan — indeed it was a year of transitions. General election, formation of new federal and provincial governments, local bodies’ elections in Baluchistan, change of President, retirement of top military commanders and the Chief Justice of Pakistan in an orderly manner prompts one to think that 2014 is a year of hope for Pakistan. Though with these transitions, daunting challenges have not ceased to exist; they have not even begun to recede.
As of now there is considerable chaos and daunting disorder. Poor performance in all the sectors of Millennium Development Goals gives us fair degree of comparison as to where we stand now and where we should have been or should be. Most of the problems which affect our daily lives need a long term attention and imaginative approach; these are capital intensive and would require mid-term course corrections. Some initiatives by the new government have taken off well. From the perspective of a man in the street, the economic crisis, energy shortfall and law and order will outlive 2014.
Mother of all ills is bad economy leading to extremism, poor governance, energy shortfall and so on. Circular debt is back with prolonged gas and power load-shedding — adding further chill to one of the harshest winters. Promise to ease the strain on domestic consumers has evaporated into thin air and the industrial sector is in a state of paralysis. TAPI and IP pipelines projects alongside direct electricity purchase initiatives from neighbouring countries do radiate a ray of hope, yet their materialization is years away.
On the first day of new year, finance minister told his part of the story; he certainly needs to do more. Inflation, downward slide of dollar, and budgetary deficit are some of the major challenges. Three core drags on Pakistan’s economy are limited tax mobilization, loss incurring Public Sector Enterprises (PSE), and mounting domestic debt. Pakistan has not been able to build a diversified economy. Growth prospects have drifted into long-term decline. Successive governments have shown little stamina for reform. Uncoordinated government intervention across the economy has compromised investment decisions. The current IMF programme is a bold attempt to try and entrench economic reform. Militancy continues to erode the confidence of domestic as well as foreign investor.
Process of negotiations with Taliban has proverbially taken the format of one step forward and two backwards. Undeclared military action in North Waziristan has further hindered the process of negotiations. Drone strikes continue, though at a much reduced frequency, yet sufficient to keep the issue of disruption of NATO supplies through KPK alive. Key to future stability is that the national leadership should agree on a comprehensive counter terrorism strategy and implement it with perseverance. Strategy should incorporate issues such as economic rehabilitation of militants, de-radicalization and reconciliation programmes in the militancy’s core recruitment areas. Simultaneously, FATA should be integrated into mainstream national politics. Moreover, there should be review of the policy to ensure good neighbourly relations with India, Afghanistan and Iran. Though there has been significant progress towards having sustainable working relations with India and Afghanistan, ties remain fragile. The need for a continuous effort in this direction is paramount. Prime Minter’s vision for peaceful neighbourhood needs a supporting strategy and a robust plan of action.
Sectarian conflict deepened in 2013 and there is little hope that it will end in 2014 unless the state comes down hard on numerous contributing factors — like hate mongering and financing of sectarian oufits. The minorities were targeted repeatedly and in most cases the culprits are yet to be apprehended. Ratio of successful prosecutions under anti-terrorism legislation is contemptuous. A viable policy and strategy must come to light as soon as possible if we are to tackle this menace head on.
In the regional contest, by the middle of 2014, every country in South Asia will have held elections within the time span of last one year. Bhutan, Iran, the Maldives, Nepal, and Pakistan have already completed national elections in 2013, while Sri Lanka has held important provincial elections. Afghanistan, India, and Bangladesh will select their next governments in 2014. Once these electoral processes are done and complete, their outcome will have implications on bilateral and multilateral relations within South Asia. Plus point shall be that all governments will have long term dialogue partners to engage with and stabilize bilateral and multi-lateral relations.
While it is extremely difficult to predict the outcome of India’s national elections, some outcomes seem certain; the BJP will gain seats in parliament, and the Congress Party will lose a significant number of them. Indian voters are likely to usher a new ruling coalition. Phenomenon of meteoric rise of “Aam Aadmi Party” may impact the general elections as well. Whichever of the parties form the next government, India’s foreign policy makers will prefer continuity over change.
Bangladesh is in chaos. Whatever the outcome, 2014 elections would remain controversial unlike the 2008 national elections. Bangladesh National Party (BNP) has boycotted the 2014 elections; national vote has taken place in a context of a deep political crisis and a climate of political violence. BNP protested when a tribunal set up in 2009 sentenced to death several leaders of Jamaat-i-Islami, which is a major ally of the BNP, those sentenced were accused of having committed atrocities during the 1971 war. Hanging of one of such persons Abdul Quadir Mollah has impacted on Pakistan-Bangladesh relations. There is a need to engage the post elections government and find a solution for those awaiting implementation of death sentence; their repatriation to Pakistan is a viable option.
Afghanistan will see two critical transitions in 2014, national elections and the drawdown of occupation forces. These two events are deeply intertwined. Outcome of elections and its acceptability within and outside Afghanistan will shape the final stages of withdrawal process. This will in turn have a bearing on post 2014 spillover of Afghanistan’s internal strife into Pakistan. President Hamid Karzai seems to be demanding a free hand to manage the elections as a precondition for signing a bilateral security agreement (BSA). Two million additional economic refugees are estimated to enter Pakistan if the BSA is signed without intra-Afghan reconciliation; and if it is not signed, as many as 5 million economic and political refugees could enter Pakistan. Afghan National Security Force(ANSF) may fall apart on ethno-sectarian lines, hence pushing Afghanistan into a long drawn-out civil war.
Question remains whether Afghanistan’s elections will achieve even their most basic function — selecting a legitimate executive authority. Yet even if these elections fall short of this modest expectation, they are likely to be regarded as a landmark in the country’s democratic transition process by an international community impatient to leave Afghanistan. Even though a functional political system may not guarantee stability; a dysfunctional and illegitimate one will certainly send the country into chaos. After Afghanistan, the thirty-year conflict has hurt Pakistan more than any other country. Playing favourites by Pakistan will only fuel the conflict. Pakistan should reach out to all Afghan stakeholders and own all of them.
Challenges confronting Pakistan are quite serious and these cannot be just wished away. Herculean leadership and persistent effort by the state and society are prerequisite for a turnaround. The silver lining is that all three are eager to struggle for confronting the challenges head on. So let’s hope for the best.
The writer is a freelance columnist.