Forecast 2016: Another Year at the Crossroads for Pakistan

21 Jan, 2016    ·   4966

Sushant Sareen takes stock of Pakistan's trajectory in 2015 and makes projections for the year ahead

Much like in all the previous 67 years of its existence, Pakistan finds itself on the crossroads even in the 68th year. The good things that happened in 2015 on the economic, security, diplomatic and political fronts are fragile and not irreversible. In 2016, Pakistan will have to consolidate the gains made in 2015. If it does not, matters could go downhill pretty quickly. It is in this sense that Pakistan is at a crossroads once again; and whether it will be able to sustain the momentum of 2015 and stay on the bumpy road to reform; or whether it will change course and take yet another wrong turn; or even slip back down the path it traversed in 2015, will decide how 2016 will end.

Over the course of 2015, the real ruling establishment – the Pakistan military – opened up just too many fronts. Apart from continuing operations in North Waziristan against the ‘bad’ – Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) – terrorists, the army also got very deeply involved in anti-terror and anti-crime operations in Karachi; anti-insurgency operations in Balochistan; anti-corruption drive in Sindh and within its own ranks; and anti-terror operations (albeit intelligence-based) in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The army was called upon to supervise elections, provide security backup to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, and become judge, jury and executioner in the military courts that were set up.

Its role in forging the foreign policy on India, Afghanistan, and the US became more hands-on and intrusive. The army chief was also the chief diplomat, and apart from hobnobbing with both the Afghans and the Americans, he was also trying to assuage the Saudis who were unhappy over Pakistan's refusal to participate in Riyadh's war against Yemen. In 2015, even as the army was encroaching in virtually every sphere of government activity and arrogating to itself the veto on every critical national decision, it continued to form and control the policy on India, not only sabotaging peace initiatives taken by Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif but also deciding on matters of conflict and cooperation with India – whether on the Line of Control (LoC), or on issues related to trade, transit or terrorism.

It will not be easy for the military to maintain momentum of the myriad fronts it has opened; and even less so because, with every new front it opens, its list of adversaries and those who would like to see it falter if not fail, grows. This becomes even more critical given the sheer lack of capacity and capability in the civilian dispensation, which will find it difficult to benefit from the inevitable slack that will come as a consequence of the Pakistan army spreading itself so thin.

The ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) will find itself firmly ensconced in 2016. The challenge that could have come its way from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) was has been quite snuffed out over 2015. While the PTI will not roll over and play dead, the sort of pressure it was able to build on the government (with the hidden hand of the military propping it up), is unlikely in 2016.

Most issues on which the PTI agitated – e.g. election fraud – have more or less been settled and are unlikely to get any traction in 2016. However, the PTI is trying to latch on to new issues, most potent being the clamour over the CPEC. But this is a double-edged sword because while the PTI might be able to rouse public opinion in provinces like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan on the Punjab-centred CPEC, it is unlikely to go down well with the electorate in the province that is the controlling authority of Pakistan – Punjab. Without stirring Punjab up, the PTI will be unable to shake the PML-N. But, if the PTI can build up a solid movement against the PML-N on the CPEC issue, it can bring Nawaz Sharif under pressure.

Whether this will be enough to destabilise the PML-N government is another matter. Unless the PML-N government commits some very egregious mistake because of its proclivity for high-handedness, any challenge the PTI mounts will not cause too much trouble.

As for other political challengers, there are none on the horizon. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) is practically on its deathbed and has completely lost the political plot. It is unlikely that the PPP’s fortunes will be resurrected by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari because none of his slogans – most of them taken from a different era of his grandfather and mother – strike no resonance with the public, and will not, in 2016. Religious parties could begin agitating against the government on the issue of the crackdown on terrorism and extremism, but if the army supports the government, or as is more likely, leads the drive against extremism, then there will not be much these parties will be able to achieve.

The danger, however, is that the army could just as easily use the religious parties to keep the government under pressure. After all, the military-mullah alliance has worked well for both the military and the mullahs. Of course, the mullahs will have to dance to the tune of the military and shed some of their pretensions of being autonomous in charting their political course.

Civil-military Relations
Civil-military relations will be the biggest political driver in 2016. Again, nothing new here. But 2016 is the year of transition in the military. Gen Raheel Sharif is to retire in November. There is already talk of whether or not he will get an extension. This will be a difficult decision for Nawaz Sharif to make – does he stick with the devil he knows or take his chances with the devil he does not? Gen Sharif has managed to assert himself and insert the military into the decision making processes of the government like it hadn’t happened since the end of former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s first government. But he has also let the civilian facade continue. His successor may not.

There is also a chance that the next General may have different ideas on controlling terrorism and extremism. On the other hand, Nawaz Sharif might decide to go for a new army chief because the next man would take at least a year before he comes into his own, long enough for the former to try and change the power balance. It is another matter that these sorts of calculations have a record of going terribly wrong, and no one knows this better than Nawaz Sharif who has had an uneasy relationship with every single army chief.

On the economic front, 2016 is unlikely to see any major take-off. Cut through the window dressing of national accounts by the Chartered Accountant finance minister, and there isn’t very much to celebrate. The only bright spot, if at all it can be called that given all the controversies surrounding it and the fuzzy economics underlying it, is the CPEC. Apart from the investment coming under the CPEC, there is hardly any other green field investment in Pakistan. The macro-economic indicators, in spite of all the fudging, still do not look very good. Savings remain very low; investment has not quite picked up; revenue collection remains anaemic; public debt is spiralling; growth numbers are not anything to write home about; and the external sector remains fragile.

In 2016, it is unlikely if the Pakistan economy will be the toast of town. But if there are no major external shocks – destabilisation in West Asia, disruption of the remittances, oil shocks etc. – the economy will meander along.

2016 will be a crucial year on the terrorism front. The first few weeks do not seem to bear out the bombastic declaration by Gen Sharif that this will be the year in which terrorism will be defeated in Pakistan. A lot will depend on how the situation pans out in Afghanistan; and the portents are not good. Apart from the fact that Pakistan has continued to back its proxies among the Taliban, there are new players emerging due to the fragmentation in the Taliban ranks.

Despite Pakistan's efforts to get the Taliban faction supported by it into the driving seat in Afghanistan, it looks as though even Pakistan's own Afghan proxies might try to assert their autonomy from their patrons. If this happens, then the security situation, not just in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan, will go into a tailspin. The vast, ungoverned spaces straddling the border between the two countries will become the playground for all sorts of terrorist groups. The entry of the Islamic State (IS) into the AfPak region is also going to change the contours of terrorism.

The traction the IS is gaining among a new set of terrorists as well as the its attraction to some of the breakaway factions of the Taliban will remain a source of concern; and worse, destabilisation in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Any uptick in terrorist violence will not just further damage the investment climate but also could risk the CPEC on which Pakistan appears to be basing its entire economic future.

Relations with India
Relations with India will go through the familiar cycle of engagement followed by estrangement. Despite all the euphoria generated by the December 2015 thaw – the meetings between the NSAs of both countries, followed by the visit of the Indian External Affairs minister to Islamabad where she announced the ‘comprehensive bilateral dialogue’, and topped by the flying visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Lahore – among the incorrigible optimists, there isn’t anything on the ground to suggest that Pakistan has made a paradigm shift in its India policy. The Pathankot attack is one indication that nothing has changed insofar as use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy is concerned, or, for that matter, the ability of the powers that be in Pakistan to sabotage any engagement process between New Delhi and Islamabad.

Chances are that both sides will start the process of engagement. Pakistan will make a show of moving against the Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorist organisation. But once the attack moves out of the front pages, it will be business as usual.

Therefore, by all accounts, the familiar trajectory of India-Pakistan engagement will be repeated. The best that can be hoped for is that violence along the LoC will be kept under control. For how long, is anybody’s guess. There is high probability of terrorist violence inside Kashmir. Some of this will be Pakistan-driven but some will be driven by the international jihadist narrative. But all of it will tend to be linked with Pakistan (which too will be tempted to dabble in the affairs of Kashmir), which in turn will lead to tensions between the two countries. There is also a high probability of another big terror attack within a few months, especially if the Indo-Pak engagement gathers some pace.

All in all, there is not much that can be expected from the India-Pakistan track in 2016.