With recent crackdown on corruption and terror financing, actions such as initiating educational reforms and pushing Taliban for peace talks, as well as considerably softened language indicate some character change in the new political and old military establishment of Pakistan. This is the result of internal economic compulsions and international pressure to act against extremist elements residing in the country. However, the establishment (political and military) has to cater to the domestic audience first and put up a brave face through propaganda machinery until there is a change in the national character earlier adopted through policies introduced by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Zia-ul-Haq to strengthen Pakistani nationalism based on Islamic identity. What remains to be seen is how the military establishment which is confronting economic coercion may lead the way for such change.

The constantly insecure domestic environment has drastically restricted the country’s production capability in the last decade. Pakistan’s food exports stood at $4.25 billion in 2011-12 while in 2017-18 they had grown to $4.61 billion, an increase of just $360 million in seven years. Pakistan’s GDP growth rate is falling while inflation may reach 7.5% in 2019 compared to 3.9% in 2018. On the contrary, its defence budget has doubled between 2010 and 2018. Since the value of the Pakistani rupee has depreciated by almost 100% against the US dollar (Rs 84 in 2010 to Rs 160 in 2019), Pakistan’s defence budget hasn’t changed much in real terms. That could be true for India as well, but the overall value of Pakistani economy subsiding has made it difficult for the government to sustain without major economic reforms. 

Since the US initially reduced and eventually blocked the coalition support fund, the Pakistani military started facing budget deficits. In the aftermath of the attack on a Peshawar military school in 2014, the Pakistani government introduced a super tax and started reducing development budget to cover the cost of military operations launched in erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Meanwhile, funds provided by China, Saudi Arabia and UAE have seemed to merely boost its current account reserves which were, periodically, on the brink and expected to last only for few months. Furthermore, even though the IMF sanctioned US$ 6 billion, or 39 months under Extended Fund Facility (EFF), Pakistan is expected to receive only US$ 1.65 billion as it has to repay the IMF about $4.355 billion by 2022-23.

A nuclear power with a population of 210 million is surviving on foreign grants and loans.

Given the prevailing dynamics, the collapse of the Pakistani economy and security is expected to be severely detrimental to the region. The international community cannot live for long under such threat and may not continue to support Pakistan financially, until and unless some of them have vested interests in doing so. Therefore, the strategy of ‘unceasing economic pressure’ would result in forcing the establishment to initiate a process of changing the national character and become a modern nation with a strong and stable economy. 

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government is trying to implement harsh economic and social reforms with the complete support of the Pakistani military, primarily to cater to the needs of the military. The present Army Chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa, has his own ideas of restructuring the economy and security frameworks, which, collectively, are known as the “Bajwa Doctrine”. He is also a part of the recently announced ‘National Development Council’ which is supposed to set a long term economic policy for Pakistan. Hence, it is evident that the military will be briefed on every major economic policy before it is implemented. 

Undoubtedly, the Pakistani government and military have a hand-in-glove equation with respect to strengthening the economy. Given the combination of Pakistan’s regional economic isolation and the potential of Central Asian markets, it is likely that the Pakistani establishment may push hard for the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA) which would enable it to access the Central Asian markets via Afghanistan. Pakistan also signed a new Free Trade Agreement with China in April 2019 to gain more market access for its goods. 

Parallelly, a strategy similar to that employed by Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is being observed in Pakistan. This involves detaining opposition leaders Asif Ali Zardari and the Sharif family, keeping them under custody, and pressurising them to share their wealth with the nation.

Next, the establishment is trying to re-establish good relations with the US. During the recent visit of Pakistan’s PM and Chief of Army Staff to the US, Pakistan has demanded the release of blocked Coalition Support Fund (CSF) and military aid in return for bringing the Taliban to the negotiation table. President Trump stated quite pointedly, “Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan”. This could be in line with President Trump’s South Asia strategy; the change in stand from ‘time-based approach to condition-based approach’ is noteworthy, however with the US Presidential elections coming up in 2020, the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan remains a slave to time. 

Pakistan is also trying to avoid economic sanctions by Financial Action Task Force (FATF) with the help of the US. It seems that the Pakistani government is trying to act against money laundering and terrorism financing by filing casesagainst financial firms and terrorists such as Hafeez Saeed, as well as taking efforts to boost the tax-to-GDP ratio and strengthen their own economy. 

However, unless substantive policy changes in socio-ideological domains are undertaken through education and governance, Pakistan’s overall national character will not change. Precedence suggests that such policies can be implemented only with the support of the Pakistani Army. This view is further bolstered by examples such as the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, an extremist organisation which brought the previous government on its knees  after security agencies jailed their leader for protesting against the acquittal of Asia Bibi. 

The military may be trying to change Pakistan’s internal governance structure to bring it on track, but its political ambitions in the region remain the same. Therefore, there can be no real change in their perspective towards Afghanistan and Kashmir. Targeted attacks on Abdul Raziq, Amrullah Saleh and many other anti-Pakistani Afghan politicians indicates that the idea of “strategic depth” is still pertinent for the policy planners in Pakistan. Attack on Indian Forces in Pulwama also indicates that their Kashmir policy remained the same until the removal of the special status of J&K under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. The removal put the Pakistani Government and military in a critical situation. Now they must find a face-saver in front of the domestic population as the Pakistani Foreign Office tries to gather its friends and allies to internationally oppose India’s move. Pakistan does not have much political capital to spend internationally, but if its military manages to use the Afghan card and overcome the current economic pressure, Pakistan is likely to resort to its traditional policy of ‘bleeding India with a thousand cuts’. Unless Pakistan changes its fundamental ways of pursuing its regional political goals, we may see more violence than peace in the region.

Shreyas Deshmukh

Shreyas Deshmukh is a Research Associate at the Delhi Policy Group.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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