The problems we have to work on
The approaching deadline for the withdrawal of the United States/NATO troops from Afghanistan has focused global attention on Pakistan. Its changed disposition towards Afghanistan, a flexible and accommodating one, has been noticed with interest in the capitals that maintain interest in Afghanistan. Some view this change as tactical rather than strategic shift in Pakistan’s traditional approach of seeking a somewhat pro-Pakistan and docile government in Kabul and the so-called strategic depth notion. Others worry if Pakistan could continue to be so forthcoming over a longer time because the Afghan leaders in Kabul view Pakistan as colonial and shrewd. Some leaders among them, including President Hamid Karzai, are likely to return to anti-Pakistan rhetoric if and when internal political compulsions demand which may have a negative implications for Pakistan’s support to Afghan reconciliation.
Pakistan is also important to the international community in its own right. It is a strategically located country that links three important regions: South Asia, Central Asia and West Asia (the Middle East). Its population is around 180 million and it possesses nuclear weapons. Pakistan is viewed as having the potential to overcome its governance and economic problems. The United States and the European Union countries are expected to continue extending cooperation for that purpose.
Pakistan is viewed at the international level both as a victim of terrorism and a source of transnational terrorism. Therefore, the international community is likely to face greater problems in this part of the world if Pakistan becomes more ungovernable and unmanageable. However, in the ultimate analysis what matters most is not merely external diplomatic and financial support but how far Pakistan’s leaders and people are willing to adopt effective measures to overcome the current problems.
Last week, a number of academicians from Pakistan and other countries and Pakistan watchers from the US and the Europeans countries met in Paris to share their views on the present day developments in Pakistan and Afghanistan and their possible directions. It was a friendly and informal consultative exercise that focused on serious issues of Pakistan’s domestic politics, nuclear policy, Afghanistan, extremism and terrorism, the India-Pakistan-Afghanistan triangle, economic development and related issues.
The participants in the consultations acknowledged that there have been important structural changes in Pakistan’s democracy that include, among others, the 18th constitutional amendment, enhancement of the position and role of the provinces, and a conscious effort by the political parties to moderate their political confrontation so that the democratic order evolved out of the 2008 elections is not disrupted. However, there were issues about the quality of democracy in Pakistan, especially the persistence of religious extremism, socio-cultural intolerance, sectarian and ethnic killings and terrorism that endangered democracy and political stability.
The participants in the discussion expected the two major political parties, the PPP and the PML-N, to continue dominating the political scene after the elections. Any one of them was expected to establish a coalition government. Imran Khan was viewed as a credible political force but it was unlikely to displace the two major political parties. No matter who rules Pakistan, the challenging tasks would be the same as faced by the present government, namely, corruption, good governance, the economy and increased balance of payment pressures, law and order and violence and terrorism of all kinds.
The safety of Pakistan’s nuclear programme was viewed as adequate vis-à-vis Islamic militancy, although the issue of an “insider’s job” was briefly raised. The focus was on the recently articulated view by some western observers that Pakistan’s nuclear programme had moved beyond the minimum deterrence framework and it could develop into a multifaceted nuclear weapons and delivery system independent of any linkage with India.
Much hope was pinned on the recent efforts to initiate a dialogue between some Taliban leaders and the Kabul government and Pakistan’s supportive role. The stability of Afghanistan being the main concern for the post-2014 period, the participants hoped for some positive outcome of the renewed effort for internal reconciliation in Afghanistan. There was a shared appreciation of Pakistan’s role in facilitating reconciliation as well as its continued hosting of Afghan refugees. They noted that all refugees may not return to Afghanistan.
The mood of concern and caution dominated the discussion of religious extremism and the activities of militant groups in the tribal areas and mainland Pakistan. The growing number of militant formations, due to their splintering in the Punjab and their linkages with the Taliban based in the tribal areas, was viewed as a disturbing development. Though terrorist attacks have declined since 2009-2010, religious extremism and militancy continue to haunt Pakistan, especially because a pro-militancy mindset pervades the society and it has seeped into the official civilian and military circles. There was a talk of immediate and long term methods to control and eliminate militancy and terrorism and the military establishment’s approach towards militancy.
The US and the EU states are expected to continue providing economic and technological assistance and cooperation, including the EU trade concessions. The main areas of economic assistance are governance and public administration, tax collection, service delivery to people, education, strengthening of democracy and the justice system, local government and local development, infrastructure including road construction, agriculture, power generation, administrative and economic reforms and humanitarian assistance.
The greater part of foreign assistance is being disbursed through federal or provincial governments and less through non-governmental organisations. A comment in the discussion suggested that the devolution of power to the provinces under the 18th constitutional amendment has made the task of the donors somewhat complex because they now have to talk to provinces, in addition to the federal government, for development projects and plans. The provinces, especially Balochistan and Sindh, do not yet fully understand the dynamics of dealing with foreign donors in terms of foreign economic diplomacy and project outlining and monitoring.
The Paris non-official and informal review was an informed and interactive consultative process that manifested positive European and United States’ interest in Pakistan. The widely shared concern related to poor governance, corruption, internal conflicts, violence and terrorism and the poor quality of democracy, especially the rights of the religious minorities and other disadvantaged sections of the populace. The key to success in addressing these challenges lies with the civilian and military leadership and the society as a whole.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.