VIVEK Y. KELKAR, MUMBAI
Pakistan is tottering. Its collapse could spark a conflagration that spills well beyond its immediate neighbors.
As Pakistan spirals into a deep economic crisis, its government has collapsed, replaced by a motley and improbable coalition of parties that have nothing in common and are highly unlikely to cooperate for the country’s benefit. The army continues to call the shots, but religious radicals openly call for jihad against the centrist political establishment. If Pakistan were isolated and unarmed, the world could safely ignore this. But it isn’t. Pakistan is not only armed but nuclear-armed—and as Americans learned to their sorrow in Afghanistan, what happens in Pakistan doesn’t stay in Pakistan.
The new government includes the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, led by exiled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif; Pakistan’s People Party led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who is the son of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto; and the radical Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl, led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman. Nawaz Sharif’s brother, Shehbaz Sharif, has become the prime minister, and his 33-member cabinet is drawn from all shades of the coalition. But crucial political parties from Baluchistan have not joined the government. Mullah Fazlur Rehman publicly called for elections within six months.
Former Prime Minister Imran Khan is not going quietly. His government fell on April 10 in the wake of his visit to Russia and meeting with Vladimir Putin on February 24—the very day that the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. An uproar immediately ensued. Khan claimed the trip was necessary to underscore Pakistan’s independence from the United States. He wasn’t wrong: The US is now even more inclined toward India. But the timing was disastrous, and the optics were worse.
The telegenic cricket hero was elected prime minister in 2018. His many critics often pointed out that he couldn’t have been elected without the army’s backing. The army, which has ruled the country for nearly half of its 75 years, remains Pakistan’s fundament of political power. His critics also claimed that Khan was unable to manage foreign policy at a time of turmoil or steward its economy at a time of major crisis.
KHAN’S DISASTROUS OPTICS
He had 16 months to go before his tenure formally ended. No Pakistani government has ever completed a full five-year term: Usually, they’re removed by coups. The no-confidence vote that pushed Khan out was a first for Pakistan—but not that much of a first, because it’s accepted as a given that after chastely professing its neutrality, the army engineered the no-confidence vote.
A large section of Pakistan’s population is Westernized and liberal-minded. They’re open about their anxiety that the Talibanization of the country will proceed apace, reaching even into the liberal enclaves of Punjab and Sind. Tension is growing not just between liberals and radicals, but between Shia and Sunni.
Khan fell afoul of the army last October, when he got into a dustup with the generals over the appointment of a new chief of the ISI, Pakistan’s powerful intelligence branch. Traditionally, the army picks its candidate, and the prime minister rubber stamps their decision. Only once has a prime minister picked the ISI chief; in 1989, Benazir Bhutto brought in Shamsur Rahman Kallu to replace Hamid Gul, whom she judged too hawkish. She lost power in 1993 before she completed her five-year term. Gul was Khan’s mentor, shepherding him from cricket captain to the pinnacle of power.
On October 6, the army issued a press release announcing its pick for the post. It didn’t consult Khan. Khan stalled. For twenty days, he refused to confirm the appointment. Pakistan was awash with rumors that Khan meant to appoint his own candidate. The face-off was unprecedented. Many expected the army to unseat him.
When Khan realized in early April that his government was collapsing, he manufactured a conspiracy theory. He waved a letter at a public rally, calling it proof that the United States, Israel, and India were conspiring to oust him. The letter proved to be an anodyne cable between Pakistan’s ambassador and the US Assistant Secretary of State to the effect that the no-confidence vote would have repercussions for bilateral relations. Nonetheless, Khan managed to spin the whole business up as “cablegate.”
Khan is inveighing against the US at a sensitive moment. Washington has been thinking carefully about its alliances in Asia following its precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan. It needs stronger ties with India to counter China and wean India off Russian arms. It’s no longer bogged down in Afghanistan—and all too aware of the role Pakistan played in its humiliation there. All of this means it’s apt to be reconsidering its relationship with Pakistan. The generals are aware of this—and worried, particularly about the US stance on Kashmir.
General Bajwa has issued a soothing statement, stressing the country’s “long and excellent strategic relationship with the US,” which was also Pakistan’s “largest export market.” He emphasized that Islamabad wished to broaden its relations with both China and the US without sacrificing either. His diplomatic tone made for a stark contrast with Khan’s allegations. This was the Army sending a not-so-subtle message that it calls the shots.
Khan gave speeches about the Prophet Muhammad’s state of Medina, claiming it was the ideal Islamic welfare state and his model. Attractive though this might have sounded to voters, Pakistan just couldn’t afford it….Pakistan’s industry doesn’t have the technological sophistication required to compete in the modern world.
But Khan just won’t go away. Last Tuesday, on a Twitter space, Khan claimed he’d been ousted by “power establishment elements” indulging in “bad practices.” By this, he meant General Bajwa. The barb was unprecedented in Pakistan’s history.
He’s since been calling—in massive rallies and on social media—for a popular revolt against the “power establishment elements.” He’s elaborating his claim to be a victim of a shadowy foreign conspiracy with Islamist language. It’s the last thing Pakistan needs right now.
A large section of Pakistan’s population is Westernized and liberal-minded. They’re open about their anxiety that the Talibanization of the country will proceed apace, reaching even into the liberal enclaves of Punjab and Sind.
Tension is growing not just between liberals and radicals, but between Shia and Sunni. Pakistan’s Shia minority has long complained of persecution. Clashes occur frequently, some violent. The army skillfully exploits religious conflicts to sour relations between elected politicians and ensure it remains in the driver’s seat.
A FRAGILE ECONOMY
All of these tensions are simmering in the cauldron of Pakistan’s economic meltdown. Pakistan’s economic crisis has been decades in the making. At its heart is the poor management of public finances. The consequences are obvious: macroeconomic instability, double-digit inflation, neglected social services, corruption, crippling power outages, unemployment, a deteriorating current account deficit, dwindling exports, poverty, and debt.
Khan didn’t help by offering blanket tax amnesties and handing out massive subsidies to the oil and power sectors. He gave speeches about the Prophet Muhammad’s state of Medina, claiming it was the ideal Islamic welfare state and his model.
Attractive though this might have sounded to voters, Pakistan just couldn’t afford it. As the IMF candidly noted, Pakistan’s exports occupy the “lowest rungs of the value chain.” Pakistan’s industry doesn’t have the technological sophistication required to compete in the modern world.
Khan appeared strangely sanguine about economic reality. “I didn’t enter politics to know the price of potatoes and tomatoes,” he said at a political rally in mid-March. The statement earned scorn from critics and supporters alike.
Pakistan has been negotiating since 2019 with the International Monetary Fund for (yet another) rescue package. Six rounds of talks have concluded inconclusively. Khan’s government didn’t enjoy much credibility with the IMF. The new government has begun the seventh round of talks. If they’re successful, the first tranche of US$ 900 million will be released.
Islamabad has long been aware that engaging with Russia could boost any alliance with Central Asia. There are trade benefits. The China-led infrastructure links also enhance the possibility of integrating Pakistan into any large Islamic nation alliances with Central Asia that may be in the offing.
But the IMF is demanding stringent structural reforms across the economy, including a substantial unraveling of subsidies and the welfare state. This is not apt to be palatable, politically, especially for a coalition government. The IMF may balk at offering a full range of aid until it receives a stronger signal of political stability. The new government looks unstable.
Pakistan’s new finance minister, Miftah Ismail, is a respected economist. But it won’t be easy for him to persuade the IMF to hand over the money or to carry out the reforms they demand with an unstable coalition in charge and Khan nipping at his heels.
All of this is alarming Pakistan’s neighbors. China has been fondly envisioning a trade zone spanning Afghanistan, Pakistan Iran, and Central Asia, right down to the Caspian Sea. China needs Pakistan to achieve regional hegemony, isolate India, and exclude the US from Asia.
The CPEC is crucial to the web that China is spinning across Asia. It leaves these countries obliged to China, and would considerably reduce US influence in the region.
Neither the US nor India want the CPEC to work. A large part of the CPEC is in Balochistan, so separatist movements in Balochistan might be acceptable to New Delhi and Washington alike. Iran, meanwhile, looks at Pakistan’s Balochistan and worries the unrest will spill over into its Sistan province.
Last week’s news that Pakistan has been firing missiles into Afghanistan—reportedly to hit the terrorist group Tehreek-e-Taliban—will not have pleased Beijing. Beijing wants a peaceful, stable region. It does not want to preside over a rabble of Islamic radical groups who are all jostling for power and busily bombing each other.
Islamabad has long been aware that engaging Russia could bring it closer to Central Asia, which would bring trade benefits. Chinese infrastructure links increase the odds of integrating Pakistan into a large alliance of Central Asian Muslim nations. Pakistan has also evinced an interest in joining the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.
Th China-Russia alliance makes Pakistan critical to both Moscow and Beijing. The CPEC may help bring into being a relationship with Moscow that compensates for dwindling US interest and leaves India wondering what its Russian ties are good for.
The Kashmir issue will challenge any democratically elected government in Pakistan. Peace overtures to India would by stymied by an army whose creed is an anti-India stance, as well as by hardline Islamists, given that Kashmir is predominantly Muslim. As for India, a weakened Pakistan is not without appeal, especially if this weakens China as well. But there are limits. No one wants Pakistan simply to fall apart.
Pakistan has a proud Muslim identity, but it remains a fragile state. A spark in Pakistan could cause a conflagration that spills well beyond its immediate neighbors.
Vivek Y. Kelkar is the co-founder and editor of the Cosmopolitan Globalist.