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Pakistan at a Crossroads

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To counter Pakistan’s security and economic challenges, it is imperative to restrain the military within its constitutional role, curbing unwarranted interference in politics, and addressing instances where the military’s institutional interests supersede broader national interests.

Pakistan, the world’s fifth most populous country and a nuclear-armed nation, grapples with a complex set of challenges: security challenges on its borders, economic strains, and internal political instability. In the realm of security, the nation contends with multifaceted threats, including cross-border attacks from Iran on its western frontier, terrorism originating from Afghanistan, and the strategic concerns posed by its perennial adversary, India, along its eastern border. Economically, Pakistan faces soaring inflation, persistent power shortages, declining exports and remittances, and a diminishing influx of foreign direct investments. On the political front, the election is scheduled for February 8, and there are serious concerns over the fairness of this election due to undue interference of the powerful military in the political process.

Pakistan severed diplomatic ties with Iran following a missile and drone attack by Tehran within its borders. Iran asserted that the strike targeted the militant group Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice), which Iran accuses of orchestrating terrorist attacks within its territory. The group claimed responsibility for an attack on an Iranian police station in December, which killed eleven Iranian security personnel. Pakistan strongly condemned what it deemed a “blatant violation” of its sovereignty by Iran and responded with counter-military strikes within Iran. Despite the Iranian Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian’s visit to Pakistan on January 29, concerns persist regarding potential escalation due to the presence of terrorist groups.

Jaish al-Adl is a Sunni and Baluch separatist group that aims to gain the independence of Baluchistan province from Pakistan and also for Sunni Baluch living in Iran. The Baluch insurgency is an internal security threat to Pakistan. Various Baluch nationalist groups, such as the Baluchistan Liberation Army(BLA), have engaged in armed resistance against Pakistani security forces andattacked a convoy of Chinese workers in Gwadar. The Pakistani military has responded with enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and displacement of civilians, drawing criticism from human rights organizations.

In the case of Afghanistan, Pakistan’s persistent public warnings to the Taliban concerning the consequences of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) cross-border attacks appear to have yielded minimal impact. Following the Taliban’s assumption of power in August 2021, Islamabad had anticipated that this development would bolster security along its western border. However, these expectations were not realized. Instead, there was a discernible escalation in border tensions, coupled with a surge in terrorist attacks specifically targeting Pakistan’s security forces.

In 2023, the Pakistani death toll from major terrorist incidents reached nearly1000. In response to these security challenges, the government initiated a comprehensive expulsion of Afghan refugees classified as “undocumented.” This measure was undertaken to address concerns related to the potential involvement or sheltering of militants within the refugee population.

Relations between India and Pakistan have been tense since 2019 following the abrogation of Article 370, which marked the end of the special status for the disputed territory of Kashmir. In response, Pakistan downgraded its diplomatic relations and halted trade with India. Currently, both nations face significant obstacles to initiating negotiations. India asserts that talks are not feasible until Pakistan discontinues its policy of cross-border terrorism against India. On the other hand, Pakistan maintains that talks cannot proceed until India restores the special status of Kashmir as per Article 370. It means that relations between the two countries will continue to be tense for the foreseeable future.

Economic challenges in Pakistan have been exacerbated by a series of factors, including elevated inflation, surging energy prices, persistent power shortages, heightened poverty levels, sluggish growth rates, diminishing exports, dwindling remittances, and a decline in foreign direct investment. The situation is further worsened by the obligation to repay debts and a mounting import bill, leading to a decline in Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves to $3 billion last year— insufficient even to cover a month’s worth of imports.

Under the Belt and Road Initiative, China is investing over $60 billion in theChina-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which was initiated in 2015. This corridor connects the Pakistani port of Gwadar in the Arabian Sea to China’s north-western region of Xinjiang through an extensive network of highways, railways, and pipelines. The ambitious project, recognized as China’s largest overseas investment, was anticipated to play a pivotal role in revitalizing Pakistan’s economy. However, analysts have raised concerns regarding the project’s capacity to generate adequate revenue for repaying the substantial loans acquired from China. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimatesPakistan’s debt to China at approximately $30 billion, raising questions about the sustainability and long-term implications of these financial arrangements.

The lead-up to Pakistan’s general elections scheduled for February 8 has been marked by significant concerns over pre-poll rigging and manipulation of the electoral process, as highlighted by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). The military’s consistent interference in politics, evident over six decades, reflects a pattern where it seeks to maintain dominance, restricting the political powers of elected leaders who may challenge its established interests. The military’s influence, thus, has become a determining factor in shaping governance and security matters. This interference has led to the orchestrated removal of leaders, first Nawaz Sharif and then Imran Khan, and has raised concerns about the integrity of democratic processes in Pakistan.

Nawaz Sharif assumed power in 2013 and endeavored to chart an independent course in foreign and security policies, attempting to cut loose from military influence. However, his pursuit of autonomy faced disapproval, highlighting the military’s robust control over decision-making processes and its reluctance to grant politicians the freedom to shape policies that deviate from established military interests. Nawaz Sharif’s persistent advocacy for warming ties with India became a sensitive matter, considering the Pakistani army’s dependence on sustaining tensions with New Delhi as a rationale for domestic dominance. Nawaz Sharif was removed from power, and the army brought Imran Khan to the premiership in 2018.

After Imran Khan assumed power, rifts between him and the military surfaced, eventually resulting in his removal through a vote of no-confidence in April 2022. Following his ouster, Imran Khan openly voiced criticism against the military for orchestrating his removal. In response, the army implemented a series of measures to ensure Imran Khan’s ineligibility to participate in the upcoming elections.

A substantial crackdown on Imran Khan and his political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), has heralded the election year. Imran Khan’s arrest, his convictionin multiple cases, and intensified pressure tactics to coerce party members into defecting and joining opposition parties paint a picture of a concerted effort to stifle PTI’s political influence. Further exacerbating the situation is the rejection of nomination papers for Imran Khan and several PTI members, effectively barring them from contesting the election. Additionally, the denial of PTI’s election symbol, the cricket bat, adds another layer to the challenges faced by the party in the electoral race.

The military’s intervention in clearing legal obstacles for Nawaz Sharif to participate in the election, positioning him as the favored candidate, illustrates the deep and hegemonic interests of the army. This willingness to transform yesterday’s adversary into today’s ally erodes public trust in the political process and institutions. Such actions contribute to political instability, exacerbate security challenges, and impede economic performance.

To counter Pakistan’s security and economic challenges, it is imperative to restrain the military within its constitutional role, curb unwarranted political interference, and address instances where its institutional interests supersede broader national interests. The need for a political environment that prioritizes stability, democratic principles, and the well-being of the nation is crucial for the future of Pakistan.