PEOPLE in Pakistan heaved a sigh of relief when the Shehbaz Sharif government assumed office, after a no-confidence vote in Parliament led to the ouster of Imran Khan from office. Imran made too many mistakes. He offended the army establishment led by General Bajwa, and even locked horns with the all-powerful USA. According to Imran, the Americans were baying for his blood after he visited Russia for a meeting with President Putin. The US, however, has a track record of maintaining good relations with the Pakistan army and ISI. It is, therefore, not surprising that the first important Pakistani to visit Washington DC, at the invitation of the Biden Administration, was the present ISI Chief, Lieutenant General Nadeem Anjum. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari was not invited to Washington. He met Secretary of State Blinken in New York.
The main focus of attention in Islamabad is on seeking foreign aid to save the country from bankruptcy.
In the meantime, Pakistan’s coalition government led by Shehbaz has run into serious domestic problems. The Prime Minister had been booked earlier on charges of rampant corruption. Moreover, the unchallenged leader of the Pakistan Muslim League is not Shehbaz, but former PM Nawaz Sharif, now in virtual self-exile in London, purportedly for medical treatment. Shehbaz’s son, nominated as the Chief Minister of Punjab, also faces corruption charges.
Adding to these uncertainties is the forthcoming retirement of Army Chief General Bajwa on November 29. All this leaves Pakistan amidst uncertainty, though it does appear that General Bajwa’s successor will be appointed on schedule. Imran’s favourite, the publicity seeking former ISI Chief Lieutenant General Faiz Ahmed, appears to have little or no chance of becoming the next Army Chief. While Imran is in a tearing hurry for early general elections, the army top brass is not. There is, however, every possibility of Imran being voted to power in any elections held in the near future. He, however, has his own problems. He faces the dislike and animosity of President Joe Biden and the misgivings of leaders of crucial Gulf countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, about his leadership.
Given the vulnerabilities of the political class in Pakistan, it is obvious that the military will ensure that it continues to play a leading role in the country’s national life. While it is too early to predict the results of future elections, scheduled for October, one cannot rule out the prospect of the army and Imran making common cause. India has wisely avoided any involvement in Pakistan’s internal politics. It is evident that as a result of its policies in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan, Pakistan is facing a Pashtun backlash, with its writ on its border areas being challenged by the Tehrik-e-Taliban. Moreover, as a result of its present policies, even the ruling Taliban in Afghanistan have misgivings about Pakistan, while expressing interest in ties with India.
Pakistan’s writ in Baluchistan province is also being challenged because of its continuing exploitation of natural resources, which has created serious disaffection among the people. This has grown stronger because of resentment arising from the arrogant and exclusive behaviour of the Chinese in the Baluchistan port of Gwadar. Four Chinese scholars were killed in a suicide blast executed by a female Baluch student of Karachi University. The Chinese are the most heavily guarded foreign nationals in Baluchistan, with the Gwadar port being a major target of Baluch nationalists, who are also targeting projects along the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Pakistan also faces challenges across the Durand Line from the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan. The reality is that many Pashtuns on both sides of the border do not recognise the Durand Line as an international border.
The main focus of attention in Islamabad is now on seeking foreign aid to save the country from bankruptcy. At a recent event, Pakistan’s former Finance Minister Dr Hafeez Pasha agreed that the country’s economy was indeed in a free fall. It was also noted that while Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves were hovering around $10 billion and its rate of growth was plummeting, India had foreign exchange reserves of $600 billion and a 6-8% rate of growth. Bangladesh, likewise, had reserves of $45 billion and 6% GDP growth rate. Moreover, during the last five years, only Chinese companies have been investing in Pakistan, which remains an ‘international basket case’, forever yearning for foreign aid and IMF support.
China, meanwhile, is making efforts to get Pakistan off the hook from continuing scrutiny by the Financial Action Task Force. Merely ‘arresting’ 70-year-old Lashkar-e-Taiba leader Hafiz Mohammed Saeed and sentencing him to 20 years in jail for his role in 26/11 is hardly meaningful. This ‘arrest’, 14 years after the Mumbai terrorist attack, is certainly not a credible manifestation of Pakistan being irrevocably committed to dismantling its infrastructure of terrorism. Pakistan’s ‘all-weather friend’ China is also blocking moves to get Saeed’s deputy, Rehman Makki, declared as an international terrorist.
Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has strongly advocated the need for greater engagement with India, while noting that Pakistan was presently isolated on the world stage. While there is naturally anger in India over Pakistan’s continuing support for cross-border terrorism, Pakistan now increasingly realises that it is paying a heavy price for its support for terrorism. The Opposition in Pakistan has, however, strongly criticised Bilawal for his views. It is important to keep channels of communication with Pakistan open for travel, trade and dialogue. It would be useful, at the same time, to appoint Ambassadors to raise the level of diplomatic contact and possible cooperation. The options for India to respond strongly to cross-border terrorism should always remain open. With the forthcoming establishment of yet another Quad, comprising the UAE, Israel, the US and India, new strategic equations are coming into play across Pakistan’s oil- rich western neighbourhood. More so, as Russia also has an interest in early development of a transportation corridor to India, through Iran.