This edition of the IPCS Column, 'Dateline Islamabad', is the precis of a larger document titled 'Pakistan in 2015', published under the IPCS Forecast 2015 series.
Click here to read the full report.
Of the few good developments in 2015 that Pakistan can be cautiously optimistic about include relations with Afghanistan and the possibility of better cooperation relating to cross-border terrorism and militancy. Beyond this, at the onset, there does not appear any radical turnaround, unless a dramatic development turns the tide for better or worse. Unfortunately, this year has started on a predictable note vis-à-vis India-Pakistan relations. And the most pressing domestic issue for Pakistan will remain addressing and eradicating terrorism.
Better is always welcomed, but the question is, can Pakistan afford a further worsening of the situation, however pragmatic we remain? Last year (2014) has left in its wake quite a bloody and brutal trail, claiming no less than 7,500 lives, with the Peshawar school attack condemned and mourned worldwide. The traditional flashpoints remained active. The eastern border with India - with sporadic exchange of fire along the Line of Control and working boundary and resultant casualties, both military and civilian - worked as a political template for the bilateral relations. The western border with Iran and Afghanistan also had its share of flare-ups, with efforts from all sides to unsuccessfully clamp cross-border movement and trafficking failing largely due to political sensitivities and divergences.
Cross-border movement of non-State actors cast a deep impact on counter-terrorism efforts, as whenever the respective States tried to pursue terrorists and insurgents, the porous nature of the border and sanctuaries available provided adequate cover to these elements. This issue has been a moot point between Pakistan, Afghanistan as well as the ISAF forces. Though the barbaric school killings has not only opened avenues for better security cooperation between Kabul and Islamabad but has also now been put into practice, until there is the realisation that both countries need to tackle terrorism impartially as a common goal, this menace cannot be beaten.
Internal politics: Nature of interactions between the political parties and leadership in 2015
While 2014 was the year of dharna politics, 2015 will push the political parties to address pressing issues such as terrorism, law enforcement and restoring peace and order in the country from a common platform. Beyond this, politics would remain more or less the same. This cooperation would not be a marriage of choice as much as that brought about by public pressure, which visibly resulted in an all parties’ national action plan. Very interestingly, ‘democratically’ elected political actors agreed to the establishment of military courts, making space for constitutional amendments and thus becoming side-line spectators to what is the most critical national concern. More than the military, the civilian actors have to be blamed for allowing the state of affairs to degenerate to such a point. Prior to 16 December 2014, the country appeared to be divided between pro and anti-dharna elements, leaving gaping voids in terms of socio-economic progress and governance.
With the military now in command of counter-terrorism efforts, two critical tasks before the political leaders include the following. First is to work together to carry out measures and build civilian capacity for counter-terrorism. The second involves putting the house in order. Interestingly, the protest march and sit-in by the PAT and PTI brought together all previous political actors together. Though more an effort to save themselves than the institution of democracy, for once, all political actors stood together on a singular platform against budding democratic challenges.
Although the sit-ins and dharnas may not have been able to change the government, they have awakened and sensitised the general public to the state of affairs. Will this public awareness work as a pressure group? Will the political consensus continue against all challenges? The answer to the latter question is no: with differences, however superficial, it is unrealistic to expect a unanimity of thought and action. As for the first question, the public awareness has made it difficult for political actors not to perform, and it is time for the political representatives to tackle the pressing questions of governance and statehood.
Countering terrorism: Will Peshawar be the tipping point?
The intensity and cruelty of the attack was such that everyone at home and abroad was deeply affected and shocked by it, and the few steps taken immediately - within hours – are certainly are game changers. The military Chief’s emergency meeting with the Afghan leadership, consultation with the American military command, and assurances from Kabul have been the first of the crucial positives required in winning the counter-terrorism efforts. There have been Afghan-led military strikes against militant strongholds that provide sanctuary to the perpetrators. The message sent out jointly is clear: there are no longer any safe havens or tolerance for good or bad Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The need is to continue with this momentum.
Immediately in the wake of the Peshawar attack, the government on an emergency basis formed an all parties’ committee to reach a consensus-based National Action Plan to prioritise and strategise counter-terrorism measures. The initial knee jerk reaction was to lift the moratorium on death sentences and to set up military courts. However, the dawn of 2015 saw these two issues being given far more centrality than any of the other twenty odd recommendations put forth.
Will 2015 see a terrorist-free Pakistan as a result of the above actions? Unfortunately, this may not be the case as the situation may worsen before it starts to get better, and this too will take time. Most of the persons executed so far, though booked under the terrorism act and definitely guilty of heinous actions are still not ‘top category’ terrorists. Terrorists (imprisoned or at large) still stand to benefit from wide loopholes in the judicial process, the lack of evidence resulting from an absent and much demanded witness protection programme, and life threats to prosecutors and judges and the families of the victims. An example is the recent attack on a Shia gathering that claimed seven lives. After a long break, educational institutions have been reopened with governmental assurances of better security measures, yet measures such as banning cellular phones or allowing teachers to carry weapons by two of the provincial governments are not only incorrect but simply fail to address the larger question.
For the moment, the central and provincial governments should also keep in mind that the banned terrorist outfits may not carry out big strikes immediately. They will patiently bide their time, and once, like all other such gruesome thresholds, the Pakistani society has crossed in its long and silent struggle against terrorism, they will strike with much gorier strategies. The time for complicity and wool-gathering about the goodness in militants is long gone.
2015 will be crucial in terms of the very tough decisions that not only the government must take but also the realisation by civil society that these actions may also affect them. The vibrant and free media that ever changing in its tone also needs to be factored in. These stringent measures should not only focus on the physical security parameters but regulating the flow of money both through formal and informal channels, the nexus between criminal and terrorist networks, curbing hate and parochial narratives and literature, reviewing of text books and a strong deliberate attempt towards depoliticising religion. Stronger law enforcement along with a secure and impartial judiciary and a policy of non-appeasement - with the nurturing of favourites and weak politicking becoming a thing of past – are a must to put the house in order. These factors also need to be counter-balanced by treading the fine line between human and civil rights, as well as a reasonable level of transparency and accountability.
Pakistan has already approached and must also prevent friendly states from sponsoring charities, seminaries and actors within Pakistan. With independent means of funding and patrons outside the country, it becomes possible for actors to defy the state. Given the complexity of the issue, countering terrorism is a daunting and challenging task of utmost importance, making 2015 a very tough year.
Military courts, Zarb-e-Azab and civil-military relations: Will 2015 bring better coordination?
Overwhelmed by grief and emotions, the entire country feels safe and comforted by the establishment of special military courts. Given the critical nature of the problem as well as judicial inaction especially in carrying out anti-terrorism measures, these courts appear to be the order of the day. These courts have been established for a period of two years initially. Yet such actions may carry long-term consequences that would work contrary to civil and human rights.
Carrying out targeted military operations such as Zarb-e-Azab, though initially delayed due to a lack of political consensus, are as much necessary and important as civilian-led counter-terrorism efforts. The delay provided a window of opportunity for terrorist elements to seek sanctuaries elsewhere, yet the Peshawar incident proved that despite their leaving Pakistani territory, carrying out strikes within Pakistan whether for their own benefit or acting as proxies for regional or extra regional actors is a harrowing possibility.
The civilian actors must realise the importance of being equal partners and stakeholders in counter-terrorism efforts rather than leaving the efforts entirely to the military. It has taken a difficult six plus years to build the foundation for a balanced civil-military equation. The military is not only aware of the uneasy consequences of a take-over and how messy it can be to meddle in civilian affairs but also how it impacts military professionalism. The civilian actors also need to carry out stronger governance measures so as not to leave open political voids to be filled by any other institution. The need is to implement in parallel all measures necessary to strengthen and empower civilian capacity to address threats such as terrorism, law and order and other governance problems, rather than blaming the military in hindsight.
The other important area that has been traditionally considered as a moot point between the civilian and military leaderships is improving ties with India. The more restive the LoC becomes, and more aggressive the threat posturing by the Indian civil-military leadership, lesser will be the space for civilian actors to negotiate peace. Or even build a domestic constituency for better bilateral relations.
Afghanistan and India: Likely trajectory for Pakistan in 2015
2014 was an important year in terms of the Afghan transition. Eventually, the US and the international community also engaged in Afghanistan after years of blaming Pakistan for all the troubles in its neighbouring country. After marginalising Islamabad’s opinions and interests in a peaceful and stable post-transition Afghanistan, they have now finally admitted Pakistan’s relevance and centrality in any future resolution.
In the foreseeable future, what matters most are bilateral Afghanistan-Pakistan relations, which for the moment, under the new unity government, appear promising. For the US, Pakistan’s relevance remained largely conditional on the former’s decade and a half long war against terror, in which Islamabad’s all-out cooperation was deemed essential. The results of this cooperation were a death toll that has been conservatively estimated at around 50,000 including military casualties, a highly polarised civil society, and visibly high anti-American sentiment that would gain further strength with incidents such as the Salala check post fire, the Raymond Davis affair and drone strikes that killed more non-combatants and civilian population than hardcore militants. The military was openly considered as an extension of US interests in Pakistan; the militants besides carrying out terrorist strikes against civilians to create shock and awe also specifically targeted the military, of which the 16 December school massacre is one such gruesome example.
With regard to foreign relations, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest visit to the region is being interpreted differently by both the neighbours. Although the US remains consistent in demanding Pakistan to keep “doing more,” Pakistan’s concern about alleged Indian involvement in cross-border terrorism via the Afghan route, belligerent statements by the Indian National Security Advisor, as well as tension escalation spreading both vertically in numbers of casualties and occurrences as well as horizontally from the Line of Control to the working boundary have met keen and receptive ears.
Will 2015 see any turn around in US polices towards Pakistan, more so after a changed scenario in Afghanistan? Again, it would be a case-based approach; where there would be positive engagement and interaction in certain sectors such as energy, education and micro-level health and infrastructural development. However, terrorism, nuclear and conventional build-up as well as India-Pakistan relations would remain points of contention. The US, much to their detractors’ chagrin, has pledged to release the US$532 million tranche under the Kerry-Lugar bill to Pakistan, which has been severely frowned upon by New Delhi and lobbyists working against the merit of this assistance. The forthcoming presidential visit by Barak Obama is going to further establish the future drift of relations by consolidating and improving strategic relations, mainly on the economic front.
On Afghanistan, fortunately, both countries share a similar vision on security and future regional stability. The unity government led by President Ashraf Ghani unlike his predecessor considers Pakistan a partner rather than a spoiler when it comes to bilateral relations. However, there is also a need to factor in the domestic constraints and stakeholders on both sides, as well as the concerns and intent of regional and extra-regional actors involved in Afghanistan, mainly the US and India. The unity government is in the initial phases of forming a cabinet and has yet to encounter any difficulties. However, the coming months will not only decide the drift of the political set-up, but the shape of Afghanistan’s security, its internal dynamics, and how the non-State actors will respond. Last but not least will be its relations with the concerned actors, including Pakistan and India. After a long time, Pakistan has a friendly government in Kabul, which will prove beneficial to both countries. However, one must also factor in the consequence of the unity government failing and what kind of political and security crisis would occur as a consequence.
Finally, India-Pakistan relations, whether hashtagged, hyphenated, or de-hyphenated, would remain interlocked in a complex intractable chemistry. Although the drift of the Modi government at this point is not at all towards a rapprochement with Pakistan for the foreseeable months, at some point, both countries need to reconnect and coordinate their paths. The election manifesto, sloganeering, statements and posturing by the Delhi government are more than enough to continuously ring alarm bells in Islamabad. The LoC violations and evidence of Delhi using anti-Pakistan elements on the western front as a viable proxy would widen the drift between the two countries. Though Pakistan remains cognisant of India’s legitimate interests in the region, it will certainly work hard to protect and advance its own.
2015 will keep Islamabad busy, facing similar elements as before, and responding to them through the mixed bag of policy options available. With pressing concerns such as terrorism, LoC firing and governance, would the State and its institutions do a better job? Again, it depends on how well we exercise our options.
Post 2014: Pakistan’s relations with US and China
Will Islamabad’s relations with China be affected in any capacity in the coming years? Beijing has always been a good and pragmatic friend to Islamabad, giving good advice when and where sought. Pakistan’s recent military cooperation with Russia has been much talked about in all quarters yet Beijing has not shown any sign of discomfort as the former has well established economic and infrastructural ties that would not be affected by any new actors. For Pakistan, Beijing proves to be a reliable actor, especially in a Western-dominated environment that can be extremely discriminatory and partial depending on the actors’ interests.
Pakistan, in its critical quest for more energy corridors and options, would remain reliant on cooperation and infrastructural help both from Washington as well as Beijing. In this regard, civilian nuclear cooperation would again cast a shadow on Pakistan’s relations with the US in light of how, from this year onwards, New Delhi would be getting fissile material from NSG States. Iran, in addition to China, is also an important neighbour through whom energy and cooperation lines would work. Iran and Pakistan both need to work better in the coming months on sectarian concerns and cross-border support provided to interest groups, as well as joint action on countering terrorism.