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Dawn Columns 01.01.2020


A decade to nowhere

January 01, 2020

 IT has been a decade that we would rather forget. It has not been the best of times for Pakistan as the country lurched[move with unsteady steps] from one crisis to another. The death of hope has made future prospects more uncertain. The overall crisis of leadership has never been so pronounced.

Despite two elections the democratic political process remains fragile. The country has already moved to becoming a diarchy with an ineffectual civilian government virtually playing second fiddle to the military[ملٹری کی ہاں میں ہاں ملانا]. The weakening of democratic institutions has provided a greater opportunity to forces outside the government to get more deeply involved in manipulating politics while attempting to thwart basic rights.

More worrisome is that under a democratically elected government there is now a move to stifle freedom of expression and plurality[رواداری] of views through unannounced censorship and other forms of pressure exerted by security agencies. The populism is increasingly manifested in rising authoritarianism, thus undermining democratic political culture. The 2010s have seen further erosion in the rule of law.

The state has seldom been so fractured. The ‘accountability process’ mainly targeting the opposition has widened the fault lines in the existing power structure. Starting from the Panama Papers scandal in 2016 that led to the judicial removal from office of Nawaz Sharif and his conviction, most opposition leaders are now either in prison or facing indictment[a formal charge or accusation of a serious crime] on corruption charges.

Rising authoritarianism is undermining democratic political culture and basic rights in Pakistan.

The selective application of the NAB law reinforces the allegations of a political witch-hunt. Many politicians and bureaucrats are languishing[تکلیفیں برداشت کرنا] in jail for months without being formally charged. The situation is fast becoming untenable[not able to be maintained]. What happens next is not hard to guess.

The decade witnessed the deadliest terrorist attack in the country’s history when on Dec 16, 2014 the Pakistani Taliban took their campaign to a ruthless new level with an assault on a school in Peshawar that killed 141 people — 132 of them schoolchildren.

The attack on the Army Public School demonstrated how the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan had often targeted the country’s most vulnerable citizens. Described as Pakistan’s 9/11, the incident should have been a turning point in the country’s battle against militancy and violent extremism but unfortunately it didn’t happen.

Violent extremism remains a major threat to the country’s stability. There are serious questions about the state’s capacity and willingness to counter radical sectarian groups. The authority of the state virtually crumbled when in 2017 hundreds of zealots{انتہا پسند} belonging to a radical Islamist group brought the capital to a standstill for several weeks. What is more troubling is that the flames of bigotry are sweeping across the country, creating a dangerous confluence [joining hands and merger] of religion and politics.

Surely Pakistani security forces have been successful in defeating insurgency in the former tribal areas and there has been marked decline in terrorist attacks. But there is a danger of losing these gains in the absence of a coherent national security strategy to deal with the problem.

The integration of former Fata with Khyber Pakhtunkhawa has been a remarkable development. But the challenges of bringing the population into the political and economic mainstream are enormous. Political instability and absence of governance make the task much more difficult.

The economy has remained the biggest challenge for successive governments in the past 10 years. The last two governments went to the IMF for bailouts but they were not able to bring long-term structural reforms needed to put the economy on a sustainable course of progress. Pakistan is in a greater financial mess three years after the completion of the last IMF programme.

Now the PTI government has gone in for an IMF programme under far more adverse conditions. Surely the macroeconomic situation has shown signs of improvement, but it’s not enough. There are still questions about whether Imran Khan and his economic team have any long-term vision for economic revival.

A major challenge is how to transform a crumbling institutional structure and address the key constraints to economic growth. Pakistan will have to overcome the barriers to structural transformation that have been stifling{suffocating} its development in the previous decade. Partial and half-hearted reforms cannot take Pakistan out of the current morass {a complicated or confused situation}. It is not just about economic growth but also the welfare of the people that matters.

The security of the country is threatened by a failing economy, population explosion, poverty and environmental degradation. A massive youth bulge and a rising uneducated and unskilled population with few prospects of finding productive employment presents a terrifying scenario. Failure to address these problems could lead to the country sliding further into the abyss of poverty.

Pakistan has one of the highest population growth rates in the world, offsetting efforts to improve social indicators. With a 2.4 per cent growth rate, the population has crossed the 208 million mark, making it the world’s fifth most populous country. It is sitting on a potential demographic disaster with more than 60pc of its population under 25 years of age. The inability of the state to productively utilise a large young generation could cause further social dislocation and conflict.

Pakistan’s foreign policy challenges have not been less daunting[intimidating] in the last decade. With extremely problematic relations with the US, growing tension with India and worsening conflict in Afghanistan, Pakistan has been in a difficult situation on the external front too. India’s action to annex occupied Kashmir and its growing belligerence {aggressive war like behaviour} has created a very dangerous scenario.

Adroit[clever and skilful] handling of the Indian escalation in February last year by the Pakistani leadership had forced New Delhi to pull back. But the stakes for Pakistan are still high. With artillery guns blazing along the Line of Control, the situation remains volatile and even a minor incident could cause it to spiral out of control.

Undoubtedly, Pakistan has played a very important role in facilitating negotiations between the US and the Afghan Taliban that have shown significant progress. But there is no probability of the Afghan war ending soon. To deal with these enormous internal and external challenges, the country needs political stability and a leadership that is not stuck in the past and has a vision for change.

The writer is an author and journalist.


Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, January 1st, 2020

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