Four different arcs of crises jostle for primacy in Pakistan, at least in terms of public attention. The headline consequently shifts from day to day and week to week from civil-military tensions; to political conflict and uncertainty; to major terrorist attacks representing an emergent national security crisis once more; and, finally, to the financial and economic crisis represented by spiralling inflation, the eroding rupee and disrupted supply chains. The magnitude of these multiple crises has already made Pakistan’s devastating floods of 2022 a distant memory to be invoked for tactical reasons as a talking point.
Each arc has a long history. It is by no means the first time that each of these or combinations thereof have surfaced and erupted with intensity. Pakistan’s history is to a great extent a history of different kinds of crises. Perhaps what is new this time is how these crises have overlapped and come together to such a great degree.
The current civil-military contestation has the former prime minister Imran Khan as the principal protagonist on the civilian side of the equation. The obvious irony here is that until his unseating and the denouncement of his government last April he was regarded as the spearhead of the most formidable ‘King’s Party’ the Pakistan army had ever put together.
Also paradoxical is the position of the Pakistan Muslim League (N) and the Pakistan People’s Party in the civil-military divide. The Nawaz Sharif-Asif Zardari/Bhutto duo has been the pole from which the strongest critique of the military’s role in Pakistan politics has emanated. That the military now weighs in on their side in the political contest shows how fluid Pakistan politics has become.
The national security situation has its own brand of incongruity. The resurgence of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) as an internal security threat is symbolised by its decision in November calling off the ceasefire reached with the Pakistan security forces and the wave of terrorist attacks thereafter. The attack on a mosque in Peshawar which resulted in over a hundred casualties, brought back memories of past outrages. In the past, each of these had underlined just how much a threat the TTP posed to public morale. That the resurgence of the TTP is happening now in the aftermath of the long and dangerous strategy Pakistan had adopted to assist and facilitate the parent Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, is to Pakistan’s critics, more in the nature of poetic justice.
Finally, Pakistan’s current economic and financial crisis has had a long incubation and gradual maturation. Many in Pakistan, and not just critics of different governments, had been pointing to the warning signs for the past two or three years. What perhaps no one anticipated is just how difficult it would prove to manage or at least diffuse the crisis. The International Monetary Fund on the one hand, and traditional donors such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and China on the other, have generally converged in an unspoken agreement that Pakistan first needed to commit itself first to a long and painful strategy of rescuing state finances and shoring up the economy’s external front.
Confronting this changed reality has perhaps been the most difficult part for Pakistan’s governing elite, which is long used to leveraging its geopolitics for economic rent. At a time when geopolitical conflicts dominate global headlines, with a major war in Europe and with the onset of a new cold war in the form of US-China contestations, Pakistan has to plough an infertile field to leverage the geopolitical card. This is a sobering experience for a country that has long been dominated by a highly securitised world view and one that has, almost by default, excessively privileged its geopolitical location.
How should India view these developments? Given our long and adversarial history and being at the receiving end of major terrorist outrages, an element of schadenfreude is inevitable. There is also the obvious requirement of caution and the readiness to face unanticipated challenges and threats.
How should we situate ourself vis-à-vis a most difficult neighbour in its current state? From different viewpoints come different answers. A tiny minority advocates putting history and memories aside and helping Pakistan. This was a sentiment during the devastating floods last year. ‘Helping Pakistan’ is a leap of faith argument, but it does not address the question whether such assistance would be accepted. More significantly, it ignores Pakistan’s size and complexity, a country of 230 million people, the fifth most populous in the world.
The more popular, even dominant view, is to let Pakistan be―let it stew in its own juice. This is less polemical than it may appear and is also grounded in an appreciation of the limitations of our own capacity and bandwidth. The crisis with all its dimensions is almost entirely the outcome of Pakistan’s own internal dynamics. We have no role in impacting it either positively or otherwise.
But there is also a third possibility. This would see the current long downturn in India-Pakistan relations not as a new normal, but in the longer span of their curious history. Bursts of positive movement follow not from linear trajectories, but from realistic initiatives that base themselves on opportunities that arise at the right tactical moment. That moment may not be upon us yet, but it will certainly come at some point.
―Raghavan is former high commissioner to Pakistan.