Geo-strategic policy options for Pakistan

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Rashid A Mughal

PAKISTAN’S economic downturn amid a changing political environment presents a challenging agenda for Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party as it entered in another year of its rule. Certainly the prospects for 2021 do not seem to be very bright too. With an exceedingly shrinking space for civil society and an emboldened right-wing, Naya Pakistan is turning out to be the same-old Pakistan. Khan’s toughest test is yet to come as he juggles political instability with policy inconsistencies. 2021 could be the year when Khan gets things on track or things could fall apart quickly. Pakistanis are facing the erosion of living standards and limited economic growth in high inflation environment and total lack of control on market price check mechanism of essential commodities. It will also be tested overseas with escalating confrontations between neighbouring Iran and the United States, rising tension between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the increasingly imminent withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and the continued potential for large-scale hostilities along Pakistan’s eastern border.
Two years into the PTI administration, Pakistan has seen mixed progress characterized by a reluctance to stabilize the economy. In 2019, the government lost control of its spending and borrowed in record amounts to make up for its failures to mobilize revenues. 2020 opened with high inflation amid an increase in oil prices, contracting deficits, and ongoing structural adjustment. PTI will need to expand its hitherto limited impact on economic policy by presenting a reform agenda to resuscitate the economy, including establishment of a proper economic decision-making process that can operate across the government. As the implementation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) stabilization program deepens in its second year, the government will have to enact structural reforms. The coming year poses a real challenge for PTI government and Imran Khan to lead a strong centre of executive power in Pakistan to coordinate the implementation of key economic decisions as Pakistanis demand more sustainable policies from their leaders. If PTI fails to demonstrate a robust reform agenda amid a very hostile and aggressive opposition, the government may face some serious challenges. Economic prosperity in Pakistan is unachievable without political stability, making it imperative for the PTI to project at least the perception of unity. Imran Khan’s biggest challenge will be consolidating power in the face of united opposition. The military, however, remains Pakistan’s most trusted, disciplined, cohesive institution.
Along the country’s deep political fault lines, look for pressure to build in the country’s toughest regions, Gilgit-Baltistan, where the $46 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) construction is underway. Pakistan’s four hot corners are expected to flare up in 2021. With China exerting its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) vertically through the country and India’s Modi government doubling down on its anti-Muslim policies, Pakistan will need to assert their political and diplomatic muscles against these various proximal threats. In 2021, the growing tensions between the region’s Hindu and Muslim communities could drive regional unrest in both countries, further threatening a wider conflict. Meanwhile, the PTI government continues to struggle to put in place workable mechanisms for implementing the second phase of CPEC—a $53 billion project and public and private collaboration in industrial, agriculture and social sectors in Pakistan.
On the other side of the country, 2021 will be a pivotal year for Afghanistan-Pakistan relations. The biggest concern for Pakistan remains how big its slice of the pie politically will be when the United States withdraws, which includes making sure Afghanistan is run by a friendly government over which it has influence (especially over India) in order to maintain its “strategic depth.” In the run up to a US withdrawal, Pakistan will double down efforts to ensure that a surge in fighting in Afghanistan will not have spillover effects and inflame unrest in Pashtun-dominated areas. Islamabad will continue to preserve it’s influence in Afghanistan, to ensure they will be a part of some post-agreement government sharing structure in Kabul.
A shadow still hangs over US-Pakistan relations following US President Donald J Trump’s decision to suspend a $2.41 million US security assistance program to Pakistan. However, as a reward for Islamabad’s cooperation in facilitating Washington’s peace talks with the Taliban, the United States announced it will soon resume the International Military Education and Training (IMET) programs for young Pakistani army officers. 2021 will involve several resets of relations between the two countries as they move beyond security-related cooperation into a more mature bilateral relationship focused on trade and investment, especially as Pakistan remains a key partner to restoration of peace and normalcy in the region.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is another flash point in the region which has necessitated urgent policy responses. Pakistan has taken a clear and principled stand on the conflict by supporting Azerbaijan openly against Armenian aggression. Basically it is a ethnic and territorial conflict between two countries. Both countries have alleged that foreign fighters are involved in ongoing war. According to Christopher Giles of BBC, “there are reports that Armenia has brought Yezidi fighters from Iraq to fight besides them. It is difficult to prove just by looking at the videos circulating on social media, purporting to show Iraqi-Yezidi soldiers because it is well-known that around 30,000 Yedizis who live in Armenia, are fighting on Armenian side”.
“As for claims that Azerbaijan has foreign mercenaries fighting besides them to bolster their forces, this too is highly controversial. Accusations are also targeted against Turkey, which backs Azerbaijan, claiming that it has facilitated Syrian fighters into the Azerbaijan’s military. Turkish government has strongly denied these allegations. Online platforms have become a battleground for both Azerbaijanis and Armenians for garnering support and raise international awareness of their cause. While much of it is for trying to generate support online, there are accusations of “inauthentic online behaviour”, using fictitious accounts”. In the coming days Pakistan may have to take very difficult policy decisions in the face of escalating Turkey-Saudi Arabia tussle for leadership. Grouping has already manifested in the shaping of one block comprising Turkey, Iran, Malaysia and China and other led by Saudi Arab with Bahrain, UAE and possibly Oman in it with American blessings. Pakistan is close to both and have to take tough and long-term policy decisions, keeping in view its own geographical position and economic priorities.
— The writer is contributing columnist, based in Islamabad.

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