Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks during the 74th Session of the General Assembly at UN Headquarters in New York on September 27, 2019. Photo: AFP/Don Emmert

It has been customary of late to describe Pakistan as a failing or failed state, with dysfunctional institutions, a collapsing economy, rogue Islamic radicals in civil society and within government institutions, an incoherent political leadership under army generals bent on maintaining their grip on decision-making areas of strategic policy and governance.

While there may be elements of truth in these descriptions, it would be too hasty for Indians to dismiss the existence and geographical presence of a powerful, hostile neighbor in such simplistic terms.

Predicting the future of Pakistan can be a risky business.

A failing economy

Pakistan faces a vicious debt trap and the balance-of-payments situation remains precarious. Foreign reserves plunged to just over US$8 billion in October 2018. It met its debt-servicing requirements only by borrowing more. Its current account deficit widened by 43% to $18 billion in 2018, while the fiscal deficit ballooned to 6.8% of gross domestic product. The country’s central bank has devalued the rupee four times since December 2017, weakening it by more than 20%.

The government’s financial administrators realized that they required a bailout of roughly $10 billion to $15 billion. Though a fresh bailout package from the International Monetary Fund was negotiated after serious hiccups, a new set of military-approved bureaucrats had to be brought in. Difficult tax burdens and resource mobilization parameters have been imposed. Much will depend on this straitjacket. In the short term, it could involve a further devaluation of the rupee and increases in gas and electricity prices, which will add to inflationary pressures hurting not only the poor but also the business classes.

The civil-military dissonance

The military’s dominance over civilian politicians has been direct and brutal sometimes, indirect and thinly veiled at others. Pakistan may take long to recover from its lingering effects. The army succeeded in casting itself as guarantor of the state’s integrity but in days to come, it will have to balance carefully its quest for security against its need to develop economically. The country’s leadership may have to ask itself if its investment in defense has effectively purchased its security.

Pakistan’s military doctrine, such as it is, is caught between the rock of India and the hard place of its internal threats and economic difficulties. Coping with militancy in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) produced massive changes in the Pakistani military. Younger officers received battle inoculation in counterinsurgency operations. Their perspectives have changed somewhat – home-bred terrorists were the “arch-enemy,” not India alone. Nevertheless, in sheer military terms, Pakistan’s defense forces, especially its army and air force, remain professionally capable of fighting against its resurgent eastern neighbor under conditions of nuclear overhang.

A divided opposition – one-sided accountability

The one silver lining lately has been the relatively smoother relationship, so far, between the civilian Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government and the military leadership. The military wanted a civilian façade. The 2018 election outcome suited the generals to a T, with their protégé Imran Khan left just short of near majorities, both at the center and in Punjab, yet able to form governments after horse-trading with Independents and turncoats. Though both the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) won several seats in their respective bastions in Punjab and Sindh, they could not come together effectively to contest either the elections for the Speaker of the National Assembly or the president.

Elimination of corruption resonated with urban youth during the elections. A Damocles sword of accountability hangs over opposition politicians seen to be corrupt, notably Asif Zardari and the Sharif brothers, though implementation has been blatantly one-sided. This has lent credibility to the opposition’s chant of “selectivity” of the current civilian face to the democratic charade.

Relations between the PTI government and the opposition remain fractious and bitter, when perhaps a more sober and statesmanlike approach was the need of the hour. Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman’s “Azadi march” of October 27 will be a stern test put before the PTI government.

With Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa having been given a three-year extension, the honeymoon between the army and Prime Minister Imran Khan may last as long as the latter does not take any independent foreign-policy initiatives, especially pertaining to India, Afghanistan or the United States.

Mainstreaming of Islamic parties

The Financial Action Task Force (on Money Laundering), or FATF, has prescribed difficult constraints on the funding of proscribed terror outfits, which are being partially and reluctantly complied with by the Pakistani administration. The military establishment remains committed to its plan of “mainstreaming” radical Islamic militant groups that have attracted Western censure. Bajwa and the director general of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Faiz Hameed, claimed in their interaction with visiting US officials that the mainstreaming of these outfits was a success and policies in this regard would be persisted with. We cannot as yet predict whether this pressure alone will be sufficient to push the military establishment to jettison the asymmetric option of non-state force multipliers against India.

In the 2018 provincial elections, the hardline Barelvi Sunni Muslim party Teheek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) won two provincial assembly seats in Sindh and one in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, emerging as the third-placed party in a number of national constituencies across the country, registering between 10,000 and 42,000 votes in some urban constituencies. This resurgence is symptomatic of a larger trend of growing radicalism among the masses, not only in most of southern Punjab and Sindh, traditional Barelvi strongholds, but also in central and northern Punjab, where aggressive Deobandi radicalism is being contested by groups like TLP.

Although political and military elites publicly support the idea of an Islamized Pakistan, they realize also that the people prefer a relatively benign sharia, leading discerning analysts to believe that the real debate over Islamism is likely to continue in a more subtle fashion, with the state ultimately controlling and shaping its outcome.

Pakistan is an ethnically and linguistically diverse state. It will have to keep looking carefully over its shoulder, on its cohesiveness and integrity. Fissiparous forces like the simmering Baloch resistance and the Pashtun Tahafuz movement will remain thorny issues, which could develop adverse momentum if not handled with maturity.

The youth bulge

There is a pronounced “youth bulge” in Pakistan, with potential to be channeled in directions positive or negative. Young Pakistanis remain patriotic, though their religious identity is highly conservative, aware of sectarian and ethnic lineage but not necessarily extremist, which may sometimes supersede their affinity for country. They display a desire for upward mobility and partiality to emigrate, yet seem paradoxically optimistic about their future.

The current center-right government could hang on to power for a while yet, where a strong military and a weak civilian puppet remain on the same page. It will keep promising milder Islamic values of a utopian Medina, protection of national sovereignty and partial deference to the West. Economic constraints will be sought to be managed through a renewed strategic partnership with the United States, with Chinese and Saudi largesse providing occasional, if inadequate and temporary, relief.

The “gloom and doom” scenario was not fully endorsed in US National Intelligence Council estimates for 2025, which saw a widening India-Pakistan gap in South Asia’s strategic relations. This would be accompanied by deep political, economic and social disparities in both countries that could have destabilizing impacts. Pakistan will be more fractious, isolated even, and remain dependent on external financial aid.

The turmoil in Afghanistan and Kashmir could have unpredictable spillover effects, though aggressive pre-emptive retaliatory actions by India or frequent political rhetoric in this regard may prove counterproductive. Engagement in dialogue, knowing full well the behavioral proclivities of its geographically recalcitrant but potent neighbor, may have to be undertaken by India. In the long term, India has to see a stake for itself in the survival of a moderate, stable Pakistan that moves ever so slowly toward a more acceptable form of a weak democratic state.

This is a slightly edited version of a recent talk delivered by the author at New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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