Pakistan’s Report Card at the Halfway Mark

June, 2010
By Rohit Honawar

Two years have passed since Pakistan had its first democratic elections in close to a decade. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) victory and Asif Zardari’s subsequent nomination to the presidency was touted as a breakthrough for a country which contended with military rule for more than half of its independent history. With incumbent Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Kayani making the decisive decision to keep the military away from politics, there was much expectation that Pakistan would assume a path to recovery which would encompass and provide for the needs of the electorate. Yet, what has emerged after twenty-seven months is a system far from the participatory politics and fair representation the people had hoped for when the PPP took charge. The country continues to be defined by dynastic politics, with a handful of powerful individuals running the affairs of the state. Not to be outdone, the army has cemented its position as the key decision maker with regards to the ‘war on terror’ and its historic rival India, while distancing itself from the internally volatile situation. Expectedly, it is the people of Pakistan that have had to bear the consequences. As the government approaches the halfway mark of its five year tenure it is imperative to assess its interim ‘report card’ – just how successful has the PPP led government been, and is the outlook optimistic, or will the electorate continue to be marginalized as the country’s leaders focus on their vested interests? 

There are several issues which spring to mind when assessing Pakistan’s performance over the last two years – the state of the economy, the case of missing persons, the deteriorating law & order situation, mismanagement of resources, the role of the military and democratic institutions, and the ‘war on terror’. While each parameter warrants a study of its own, most have received little if any attention from Pakistan’s Government. The economy, which is one aspect that should conceivably sit at the top of the Islamabad’s agenda, has failed to instill much confidence owing primarily to its mismanagement. The country’s foreign debt has increased by an estimated USD 20 billion in the two years that the PPP has led the country, from USD 38 billion, to the current USD 58 billion. The country’s consumer price index (CPI), a key indicator of inflation rose 13.68 percent over the previous year. Meanwhile, food inflation was registered at 15.49 percent up from the previous year, while the price of essential commodities has grown increasingly less affordable for the public. In a bid to rectify the situation, the government has found itself subsumed in a debt-ridden cycle to foreign governments and organizations. The PPP’s prolonged failure to appoint a successor to former Financial Minister Shaukat Tarin, who chose to retire so that he could focus on his private business interests, underscores a bureaucratic attitude that has essentially been more about the individual than the collective. 

From a medium to long term perspective there appears to be a lack of strategic planning, with each passing year highlighting the inherent structural deficiencies of the system. Load shedding in virtually every city of the country has become synonymous with the people’s daily existence – with parts of Balochistan contending with close to 20 hours of power cuts a day. Pakistan fares much worse on the water front, with the country’s annual per capita water availability expected to drop below the scarcity level of 1000 cubic meters/person by 2025-2030. Meanwhile, the country spent as little as USD 0.02 billion on maintaining and replacing water infrastructure in 2007 – a paltry amount when compared to the USD 5.3 billion proposed for the 2010-11 defence budget. With no signs of respite in the immediate future, there are growing incidents of violent uprisings and protests, exacerbating an already volatile and charged situation. 

Provincial stability, an aspect which has historically provided some semblance of normalcy in the midst of all the chaos is rapidly eroding. From allegations of water theft by the larger more dominant Punjab, to the issue of target killings in Karachi and Quetta; from demands for the creation of more provinces, to the case of missing persons and extra-judicial killings in Balochistan – the list is endless. In what is arguably the icing on the cake, the federal government is becoming increasingly less accountable. President Zardari’s pardoning of Interior Minister Rehman Malik and PM Gillani’s subsequent statement that it would not be “…appropriate for any government to send its Home Affairs Minister to jail” is a blatant disregard for the country’s rule of law, while further reinforcing the notion that it ‘pays’ to be in politics. 

Global attention on Pakistan is inevitably focused on the military’s efforts at eradicating terrorism in the Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa region – an understandable concern given that groups such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and their sympathizers are increasingly determined to target western interests in Afghanistan, while challenging the Pakistani state. More recently, the purported links between failed New York bomb suspect Faisal Shahzad and the TTP has alarmingly demonstrated that terrorist organizations in Pakistan are inching closer to having the capability of attacking western countries on their own shores. 

On its part, the Pakistan government and military have made a concerted effort to ‘win’ back the tribal belt following a spate of attacks on their own country, and unrelenting pressure from Washington and her allies. The military’s success however, is questionable. Assessments of the operations point to an all too easy rate of success, leading to the conclusion that the battle hardened TTP fighters have migrated to the interiors of Sindh and Punjab to avoid the military assault, with every indication of returning once the local administration takes over from the army. On the surface the military has succeeded – terrorist attacks in Pakistan, which once occurred at the frequency of at least once a week have lessened, and the tribal areas once again depict a sense of normalcy, albeit highly sanitized and controlled. The real test however will come when governance of the region shifts from the purview of the military to that of local authorities. 

The army operations in the tribal areas are on the whole sincere – this is after all their ‘bread & butter’ in terms of financial military aid from western countries. In stark contrast however, the terrorist belt of Punjab, which hosts anti-India groups such as Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), continues to flourish. The government and army have been reluctant to clamp down on these elements, choosing to flatly deny their existence, or turning the other way given the security establishment’s close historical links. While these groups have not threatened the Pakistani state thus far, their continued nurturing by the establishment does threaten the long-term stability of the country. 

From an external perspective, terrorist attacks on India, which can be traced back to Pakistan will derail bi-lateral ties – an aspect which Islamabad can economically ill-afford. Islamabad cannot rely indefinitely on foreign financial assistance and must eventually look to bolster itself and become a self-sustaining country by resuming normal trading relations with its regional neighbours. From a ‘hawkish’ view, the prospect of war, while seemingly remote at present and not desirable on either side of the border, will deal a massive blow to the country’s economy. While the LeT and JeM have remained in the control of their state handlers thus far, it is pertinent to remember that the organizations ultimately owe their ideological allegiance to Al Qaeda; meaning that a Pakistan government and military perceived as being too close to the west could eventually be challenged by its own hydra-monster. 

Despite the democratic label, it would seem that Pakistan’s government exists less to serve the people, then to serve its own interests. The tendency of the government to focus on political issues which have little bearing on the lives of the common man is a testament to how they have failed to perform when needed most. The 18th amendment, Swiss cases and chasing a conviction of former President Pervez Musharraf – while undoubtedly important issues, should not come at the determent of the nation. Unfortunately however, the people of Pakistan have little to choose from - military rule or, a quasi dictatorial democracy.