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Caught in the middle



By Imtiaz Gul

The Friday Times, January 10, 2014


Amidst conflicting global interests in the region, economy and security are Pakistan’s key challenges this year

The two most pressing challenges that Pakistan faces in 2014 relate to worsening security and an unstable economy, reeling from more than a decade of insecurity.

The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) recently forecast Pakistan’s economy to grow by 4.1 percent in 2014. It also warned about a double-digit consumer price inflation (circa 11 percent in 2014), likely to be the highest inflation rate among the 17 developing Asia-Pacific economies selected for the survey. Consequently, poor and vulnerable households will be disproportionately affected as they spend a larger part of their income on food purchases, the ESCAP warned.

That is bad news for millions of poor Pakistanis, and would look even worse if the survey were grounded in the reality of suburban and rural life in Pakistan, continuously conflated by rising energy prices, and a relentless manipulation of food prices by powerful cartels.

While millions suffer from the crippling effects of indirect taxation and the arbitrariness of the food and fuel cartels in determining prices, economists also wonder as to whether and how the government – which represents powerful businessmen, industrialists and agriculturalists – will be able to turn around the situation for the common man as far as inflation and employment generation are concerned. The Sharifs may succeed in roping in foreign investments in Punjab, but will they adopt a whole-of-Pakistan approach and address these issues in a national framework? That is where their test lies. Will they, as national leaders, let the PPP in Sindh, the National Party and the PKMAP in Balochistan, and the PTI in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa benefit from a holistic approach, or focus on turning Punjab into a thriving commercial hub in 2014 and beyond?

Well, they can’t expect Punjab to permanently prosper while its vicinity sulks in instability. One would assume they cannot hope to raise an island of peace and prosperity surrounded by perilous insecurity and economic adversity. And that instability is directly linked to the country’s security policy, of which the foreign policy and the security establishment are crucial elements.

This represents a formidable challenge for a country that is currently caught up in competing geo-commercial interests among corporate giants from the US, China and India (minerals, the Arabian Sea hot waters, Iran’s ideological conflict with the West and its ambitious nuclear program, and the India-Pakistan race for political interest in Afghanistan). These interests also fuel various dimensions of the conflict in Afghanistan and are likely to dominate the dynamics of security in South Asia because of multilateral trust deficit in Islamabad, Kabul, Washington and New Delhi.

This mistrust also flows from Pakistan’s foreign policy – because of which it remains a bad guy, a duplicitous entity and double-dealer on its relations with some of the groups that New Delhi, Kabul and Washington are seized with. On the diplomatic level, Pakistan’s current predicament is directly related to these concerns, to be precise. Little do most people realize that issues such as how to deal with various shades of non-state actors and Taliban remains a source of consternation for all, even in Washington. The Haqqani Network has, for instance, become the cause of an inter-agency battle of wills in Washington. The recent defense spending bill that the US Senate passed on December 19 asks the administration to come up with a plan to attack the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network by going after its cash. “We need a comprehensive strategy from them about how the network operates, how they recruit and how they travel,” a Congressional staffer told Foreign Policy magazine. “Shockingly, nothing like this has been done.”

The Haqqani Network also constitutes the core of another issue that dogs Pakistan’s image abroad. “The real issue is not border management… it is sourcing out borders to militants,” Senator Afrasiab Khattak recently explained in an interview with a foreign radio. “Unfortunately, Pakistan has been doing it for a very long time, and recently the Afghans have also resorted to this tactic by giving shelter to our fugitives. I think we have to stop this.”

Asked whether his government was ignoring the presence of Mullah Fazlullah and his militants in eastern Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai responded quite candidly. “Yes, they are there. Yes, they are there because of the war created against Afghanistan by the establishment in Pakistan. This is the consequence of the activities from across the Durand Line in Pakistan towards Afghanistan… it is not my fault,” Karzai told Geo TV in June 2013.

Karzai’s statement amounts to accepting that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend,” and left no doubt that Fazlullah and others will keep operating out of eastern Afghanistan as long as the Haqqanis remain ensconced in Waziristan.

The most daunting challenge for Pakistan comes from India’s obsession with the “India-focused terrorist infrastructure” that it believes enjoys support and shelter in Pakistani territory.

To match their rhetoric on good relations with India, Islamabad and Rawalpindi will have to work overtime to address this Indian perception through demonstrable actions in 2014. Conclusion of the trial against the suspects of the 2007 Mumbai attacks, and legal and administrative measures against Lashkar-e-Taiba’s Kashmir-focused militant activities could possibly be part of those actions – confidence-building measuresso to speak.

Such an action will possibly also prompt the two neighbors’ disengagement from their proxies and agree to synergize their strategies on Kashmir and Afghanistan, and possibly help deescalate tensions.

A détente between India and Pakistan is absolutely essential for the security dynamics of South Asia, also because the Indian narrative on Pakistan considerably influences, if not shapes, the Kabul and Washington view on Pakistan.

As for Pakistan and a number of its think-tankers, academia and officials, they will have to stop talking of why others need Pakistan. They must debate as to what Pakistan needs to end its near political isolation.

Karzai’s mellowed down attitude toward Pakistan since late last year should also help the government in Islamabad build on this goodwill. This also ties well into Karzai’s good relations with New Delhi. This trilateral relationship, on the one hand, provides Karzai with what he might believe is a firewall against American arbitrariness. And on the other, it can work wonders for Pakistan ahead of the bulk withdrawal of the US-led foreign forces from Afghanistan.

Another looming challenge is how to balance relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran. Tehran is inching closer to the US-led West, causing worries for the Saudi Kingdom. Prince Saud al Faisal articulated this concern during his Islamabad visit, when he told media that “if we don’t take care of the vacuum created by NATO withdrawal in Afghanistan, others might fill that up.” This was an unambiguous reference to Iran. And by offering energy cooperation to Pakistan, the Saudi foreign minister also tried to upstage the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project.

Given Sharif’s indebtedness to the Saudis, one wouldn’t be surprised if the pipeline project is scuttled for good. That again puts Pakistan at the heart of conflicting geo-political interests. It means an arduous journey that requires vision, and extreme caution.

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the recently released book Pakistan: Before and After, published by Roli Books, India

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk