IPCS Forecast: Pakistan in 2015

19 Jan, 2015    ·   4807

Sushant Sareen identifies key domestic and foreign policy trends that are likely to confront Pakistan in 2015

This edition of the IPCS Column, 'Indus-tan', 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.

Making a forecast is always fraught with risk, more so when it is about a country like Pakistan where something is happening all the time, and worse, a single incident or event, whether or not within the country, can change the dynamics and trajectory of how things are likely to play out.

In 2014, there were some clear trends that manifest themselves: the civil-military tussle tilted heavily in favour of the military; politically, the Nawaz Sharif government weakened considerably, partly as a result of the military becoming more assertive and partly because of
the potent challenge mounted by Imran Khan; relations with India went through the usual roller-coaster but the trend is significantly negative, more so with the issue of Jammu and Kashmir once again acquiring salience; and finally, the unabated march of radicalism what with the Islamic State registering its presence in the region and attracting elements from the Taliban.

Most, if not all, of these trends are likely to gather force in 2015.

Civil-Military Relations: Will the Civilians Remain a Rubber Stamp?
The Nawaz Sharif government has, at least for the time being, reconciled to playing a subservient role to the military. While underlying tensions are likely to dog this relationship in 2015, it is unlikely that there will be any overt or hostile takeover of the government by the army. The army will continue to burnish its image in the public eye – the public relations exercise by the Chief of the Pakistan Army, General Raheel Sharif, at the Peshawar Army Public school reopening is an example – and will use this to keep the civilian government under pressure.

Civilians will be used to rubber-stamp decisions that the army takes on issues like counter-terrorism, Afghanistan, India, the US and other security and foreign policy issues. The space of the army has increased immensely, and that of the civilian government has constricted in the same measure after the creation of the military courts under the 21st Constitutional Amendment. While the government is likely to avoid any step that causes friction with the army, it will not be averse to taking advantage of any blowback of policies that the army forces on the country to claw back some of the space it had had to cede to the military. This will however deepen the disconnect between the civilians and the military establishment. The problem will be that if the army's policies start unravelling, there isn't much the civilians can do to set things right.

What is more, the army would have gamed how the government is likely to play its cards in the event of things going awry. It would therefore keep its leverages to keep any possible civilian pushback in check. For its part, the Nawaz Sharif government has understood that it needs to balance a rampaging opposition against an assertive army and prevent any linking-up between the two that can sound the death knell of the sitting government. But this balancing act will come under strain if the military makes demands that the government is loath to concede. For instance, if the military wants to act against religio-political parties or wants to continue playing favourites with jihadists or wants to undertake massive operations against ethnic separatists and dissidents, it could become unpalatable for the civilian government. While Nawaz Sharif has checked his proclivity to enter into a head-on collision for now, how long he will be able to do this remains a crucial question which will decide how the civil-military cookie crumbles.

Political Interplay: PTI-PML-PPP-MQM Equations
In 2015, at the national level, among the civilian political parties, the two main contenders will remain the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI). The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) is likely to diminish further and will only serve as a handmaiden of the PMLN while keeping up the appearance of being in the opposition. Even if Bilawal Bhutto Zardari starts playing a more active role in PPP affairs, it is highly unlikely that the party will be able to re-emerge as one of the poles of Pakistani politics.

The PPP has virtually no presence or resonance anywhere in Pakistan except for Sindh, where it could see some crystallisation of forces opposed to it. In Sindh, the PPP-Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) relations will remain fraught. The MQM is facing erosion in both its firepower and its political base and could face major crisis even if the criminal cases against Altaf Hussein in UK don't lead to his arrest. Nevertheless, if the MQM retaliates, Karachi could see large-scale disruptions and disturbances.

In Balochistan, despite the growing dissent from a section of the PMLN leadership, the coalition government is likely to continue under the current Chief Minister. The anti-establishment Baloch nationalists like the Balochistan National Party Mengal (BNP-M) have lost political ground because of their participation in the 2013 General Elections and are likely to get squeezed between those the insurgents on one side and the collaborators on the other side.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, there could be a political vacuum in 2015 if the anger, disillusionment and disenchantment with the PTI-led coalition grows, partly because it hasn't really broken any new ground in terms of administration and good governance and partly because of its soft attitude towards the Taliban. The trouble is that the Awami National Party (ANP) hasn't managed to really regroup after its loss in the 2013 polls and is in no position to re-emerge as a potent force in the province. The PMLN appears to be in disarray with senior leaders disgruntled and the central leadership averse to doing anything to destabilise the PTI-led government. The Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam- Fazal-ur-Rehman (JUI-F) has its pockets of support but its links with the Taliban are going to go against it.

The real battleground will remain the Punjab where the fight will be between PTI and PMLN. Unless the PMLN commits a major blunder, either with the military or in its dealings with other political parties, it is unlikely that in 2015 Imran Khan will be able to mount the sort of pressure he did in 2014. His anti-government campaign appears to have lost steam. Partly because of the urgency that the anti-terror campaign has acquired and partly because of the papering over of differences between the PMLN government and the military, Imran Khan is unlikely to get much Pakistan in 2015 traction in his quest to force the ouster of the government. The challenge for Imran Khan will be to keep his flock together and even expand his political base. There is a good chance that many anti-PMLN elements in Punjab, including those in the PPP, will make a bee-line for PTI.

Therefore, while Imran Khan will remain a force to reckon with, he will not be able to force a mid-term election. In any case, if a situation develops where the elected government is ousted by hook or by crook, then instead of an election, there could be another extra-constitutional dispensation taking over.

Pakistan’s Likely Strategy Towards Jammu and Kashmir
Kashmir is likely to once again become the big sticking point between India and Pakistan, more so because positions in both New Delhi and Islamabad have hardened over the issue. Even if Pakistan cracks down against all shades of jihadists, including groups focussed on India like the Jamaat-ud-Dawah/ Lashkar-e-Taiba, it won't be of much help because Pakistan will try and balance this action by raising the diplomatic and political temperature over Kashmir.

Efforts will be made to internationalise Kashmir, which in turn will be a red rag for the Indian government and tie its hands on re-engaging with Pakistan. On the other hand, if Pakistan continues with the policy of using jihadist proxies in India and tries to keep the pot boiling in Kashmir by exporting violence, then in addition to the normal political and diplomatic stand-off, chances are that the Line of Control (LoC) will also heat up.

Violence levels in Kashmir could also spike if Pakistan re-starts the export of jihad. Pakistan could get an opportunity to muddy the waters in Kashmir if the internal politics in the State remains in disarray.

Rise of the Islamic State?
The rising attraction of the Islamic State (IS) is among the most worrying trends that could unfold in 2015. Over the last few months, despite denials from Pakistani officials, there is good reason to believe that the IS has started gaining traction in Pakistan. If this trend grows, and IS gains more adherents, then it will complicate not just an already complex jihadist problem but also the regional dynamics.

There is a good possibility that if Pakistan manages to broker a deal between the Mullah Omar-led Taliban and the Afghan government, the more radical elements of the Taliban could gravitate towards IS. This could in turn lead to a fight between the Taliban and IS. On the other hand, if the Pakistani efforts at effecting a rapprochement between the Afghan government and Taliban comes a cropper, and the fighting continues, then there could be some kind of a compact between IS and Taliban, provided of course they are able to settle the ticklish problem of how a Caliph and an Amir-ul-Momineen are going to work together.

A third possibility is that the Taliban snuff out the challenge of the IS. The relationship between al Qaeda and the IS will also be a critical factor. Although al Qaeda has a strong base in this region, it has been losing its primacy in the jihadist scheme of things to the IS. For Pakistan the problem will be how it balances its links with the Afghan Taliban with its budding relationship with the Afghan government. If it leans too much on the side of the Afghan government, it could push the Taliban away and if this leads to the much feared compact between the Taliban and IS, then Pakistan will have to pay a very heavy price. On the other hand, if it isn't able to deliver the Taliban to the Afghan government, then it could lead to a collapse of the Afghan-Pakistan relationship, which in turn will also destabilise the region. Regardless of what happens, radicalism isn't going anywhere any time soon.