Pakistan stands at a pivotal moment in its history. It has to take major decisions on its future trajectory, on issues like democratic consolidation, civil-military relations, economic development, terrorism, response to religious fundamentalism; and its relations with its neighbours and beyond.

The task has, no doubt, been complicated by the winds of change that are blowing across the world. Brexit in the UK, the election of Donald Trump as the US president, the potential success of right-wing parties as in France all point to the waning popularity of globalization and a clamour for nationalism and protectionism. Even though Pakistan is not fully wired into the global economic system, it too will not be able to escape the impact of the flux that the world is likely to face in the coming years.


Despite one civilian government succeeding another in 2013, democratic consolidation continues to be brittle. In its annual report titled ‘Assessment of the Quality of Democracy in Pakistan 2016’, The Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) a think tank focused on political and public policy research made the following points: (i) The National Assembly continued to be sidelined as a forum for debate, discussion, and resolution of national issues. (Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has attended only 13 per cent of Parliament sessions and Imran Khan even less) (2) Highlighted lack of institutionalized decision-making since the federal cabinet that was supposed to meet at least 52 times in a year only managed to meet 6 times during 2016 leading to poor governance. (The Supreme Court had to intervene to tell the PM to get policy decisions passed by the cabinet) (3) The internal democracy of political parties continued to be a liability for the quality of Pakistan’s democracy during 2016. (4) The civil-military imbalance tilted even further, with the military leadership taking leading roles on matters of national security and certain areas of foreign policy, while the elected government appeared to act as an auxiliary.

The report concluded that the process of consolidation of democracy continues to be not only slow but also marked by roadblocks and twists and turns. Though a formal democracy, Pakistan had serious drawbacks that have made it fragile.


Be that as it may, the pace of political activity is likely to quicken due to the general elections slated for 2018. Punjab, with over 50 per cent seats in the National Assembly, would remain the major battleground. During the last three years, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has further consolidated its position in its power base of Punjab due to its performance in the local bodies polls. Using the criterion of loyalty, it has established a monopoly over the state machinery – bureaucracy, police and patronage in Punjab colloquially called ‘thana-kutcherry’ model of governance. It has created a large pool of beneficiaries ranging from bureaucrats and government contractors to real estate businessmen and journalists. The future of these beneficiaries is now intricately linked with the PML-N and they will do their best to ensure its victory in the 2018 elections.

Despite this solid base in Punjab, Nawaz Sharif finds his position shaky primarily because of the Panama Papers[1] case. The hearing of the case has been completed and the Supreme Court, at the time of writing, has reserved its judgement that is expected anyday.

Though the Sharif brothers believe that they can ‘fix’ almost anything like they have been doing for the last three decades, Panama Papers are not going away and neither are the London flats. Nawaz faces difficulties in explaining the source of funds through which the flats were bought. Irrespective of the judicial decision in the case, these issues will remain part of the political narrative in Pakistan and would be like the proverbial albatross around Nawaz’s neck.

For Imran Khan, the Panama Papers were god-sent since they gave him a new lease of life after his election rigging campaign received a set-back following the 2015 Judicial Commission report. However, tactically, Imran was unable to capitalize on the opportunity to force the resignation of Nawaz Sharif. This was primarily due to his inability to grow out of the campaign mode and to continue to depend on the power of street agitation instead of that of Parliament. When he was unable to muster enough street power to dislodge Nawaz Sharif, he had no option but to return to parliament. The opposition remained fractious with the PPP especially unable to countenance that it was Imran Khan who had emerged as the main opposition leader.

The key battleground for both the PPP and the PTI is Punjab where the two would be fighting to attract the same anti-Nawaz constituency. Bilawal Bhutto has been making some efforts to reinvent the party by distancing it from the label of being a ‘friendly opposition’ to the PML-N. Asif Zardari, however, continues to play an ambivalent role, hedging his bets lest the anti-corruption campaign engulfs him too. That apart, there is considerable skepticism about the party being a crowd-puller anymore. It does not have an agenda or programme like its leftist agenda in the past of ‘roti, kapda aur makan’. 2017-18 would show whether the PPP is politically relevant at the national level or would remain confined to Sindh.

Imran Khan has an edge over the PPP since he has had a consistent anti-corruption agenda. He dominated the political scene in 2016 and has donned the de facto mantle of the leader of the opposition. However, the moot question is whether he can convert his 17 % vote share in the 2013 elections into over 30 % in 2018 that would be required to ensure that Nawaz does not win a fourth term. For this his corruption plank would have to fire the imagination of the people at large or make them angry enough to see the back of Nawaz. It remains to be seen whether he can create a ‘hawa’ in the run up to the 2018 elections to defeat the well-oiled Sharif machinery, especially in Punjab.


The state of civil-military relations is another cause of worry for Nawaz Sharif. With the on-scheduled retirement of the popular Army Chief, Gen Raheel Sharif, Nawaz was saved the blushes of another premature termination of his premiership. Having appointed his sixth Army Chief, the moot point is have civil-military relations become harmonious under the new army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa ?

It is one of Nawaz Sharif’s fatal flaws (the others being demanding absolute control and loyalty and considering himself above accountability) that he thinks that having appointed his own man (apna banda) as army chief, the army is now beholden to him. He still hasn’t learnt that the army chief is no one’s man and neither has the army as an institution changed because of change in command.

In trying to settle scores with the army and claw back some of the space conceded to it, Nawaz is likely to land himself in trouble. A case in point have been the efforts to tarnish the reputation of former army chief General (R) Raheel Sharif by the systematic leak of his joining the Saudi-backed Islamic Military Alliance and later generating a controversy over the propriety of the allotment of 90 acres of land to him. This led to a sharp rejoinder from the Army’s mouth-piece Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) that the land was allotted strictly in accordance with the ‘constitutional provisions’ warning “this debate with intent of maligning army has the potential to create misunderstanding between state institutions thus considered detrimental to existing cohesion.”

This was the second warning under Gen Bajwa’s short tenure The first was in mid-January 2017 when in response to a question about a ‘dormant inquiry’ into the Dawn leaks[2] controversy during a visit to Kharian cantonment he said that “there will be no compromise on the dignity of Pakistan Army”. This was not an isolated event since he was again asked about the Dawn leaks issue during his visit to the Lahore cantonment in February. If the PML-N thought that the leaks controversy was done and dusted with the departure of Gen. (R) Raheel Sharif they were mistaken.

Both these statements are indicators of the potential acrimony between the civil and the military early in Gen Bajwa’s term due to Nawaz’s penchant for control. Observers have noted that the ISPR went beyond the defence of Gen (R) Raheel Sharif to warn about misunderstanding between state institutions, i.e. the civil and the military and being detrimental to existing cohesion.

Nawaz’s calculations to chip away at the army are possibly based on the reality that the opposition is in disarray, his formidable power base in Punjab is intact and the fact that the new army chief will take some time to settle down. His attempts, however, could lead to a renewal of tensions in civil-military relations. An alternative strategy of providing good governance and strengthening institutions to claw back the space from the army does not seem to fit into Nawaz’s style of governance.


During the last 15 years, Pakistan has lost more than 50 thousand civilians and soldiers due to terrorism. According to the State Bank of Pakistan the total direct and indirect loss and damage to Pakistan’s economy, as a result of the ‘war on terror’ is around $118.3 billion from 2002 to 2016.

It required the massacre of school children at the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014 to make the Pak leadership, especially the army, see the writing on the wall. A quick consensus was arrived that the anti-Pakistan terrorist groups, especially the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the sectarian groups like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) had to be rooted out. The violence in Karachi was already being tackled via a sustained operation.

Cumulatively, these operations have led to the security situation showing considerable improvement in 2016. While the military Operation Zarb-e-Azb has significantly weakened the terrorist infrastructure and networks in the North Waziristan and Khyber agencies, the killing of leaders of LeJ in Quetta, Karachi and Punjab, have lowered the threat of sectarian violence. Many of the TTP leaders have relocated to Afghanistan.

However, there have been slippages in 2016 with major attacks in Quetta, Peshawar, Mardan and several areas in FATA and in 2017 in Lahore, Sehwan and Charsadda. These attacks show that terrorist organisations still have the capacity to wreak havoc virtually at will and cast doubts on the self-proclaimed successes of Operation Zarb-e-Azb. It is also indicative of the fact that rival factions of the TTP have decided to come together to form a ‘united front’, joining hands with other terrorist outfits. In the days ahead, tackling the regrouped united factions would be a major challenge.

Moreover, the military operation has been selective in its targeting. The anti-India terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and the anti-Afghan groups like the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network have been spared. Unless Pakistan carries out an across the board operation, it is unlikely to be rid of the scourge of terrorism. In addition, it would be vital to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure developed over decades that would have to include a counter-terrorism narrative so as to join the ideological debate that the Pakistani state has been losing for decades.

The focus would have to be Punjab, the hub of the terrorist infrastructure. The fight to reclaim Pakistan would have to begin here. Following the 13 February 2017 Lahore attack, despite the PML-N government being in denial about the problem, Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad has been launched across the country. How effective it will be remains to be seen.

Complicating the issue is the extent of polarization in Pakistani society. This was most apparent on the death anniversary of former Punjab governor Salman Taseer who was shot by his own guard Mumtaz Qadri in January 2011. A section of civil society mourned Taseer’s brutal murder for trying to help a Christian woman accused of blasphemy while another section went on a rampage to flag their support for the blasphemy law. Symbolizing this polarization is the ‘shrine’ that has been constructed for Mumtaz Qadri near Islamabad. The shrine is now the symbol of the blasphemy law and woe to anyone who tries to tinker with it. This is, in a fundamental sense, the net result of politicians, starting from Jinnah and Liaquat Ali, using religion for opportunistic purposes and now facing the consequences of that opportunism by conceding more and more space to religious groups.

The entrenched sectarian and ideological ambiguities that continue to plague Pakistan was amply demonstrated when the Interior Minister refused, in the Senate, to equate banned sectarian organization with banned terrorist groups even though they openly advocate takfir and violence. The reason given was that Shia-Sunni conflict went back 1,300 years.


The Sharif or the ‘Raiwind’ model of economic development has major flaws. At its core are mega infrastructure projects with a focus on Punjab and massive borrowings to make the foreign exchange reserves look good. In addition, what has kept Pakistan afloat is the low price of oil. Ostensibly, the economy looks okay. The stock market is doing well, foreign reserves are healthy, the growth rate though below 5 % has picked up from the under 4% growth of the 2000s.

However, below the surface is a different story. Workers remittances are declining- five per cent of GDP in FY 2015-16, as compared to 6.9 per cent in FY 2014-15. Exports have been declining – $24.5 billion in 2012-13 to $17.9 billion in 2014-15. The trade deficit has widened to 5.9 per cent of GDP. Tax-to-GDP ratio has declined in the three years of the PML-N government and is one of the lowest in the world at 8.4 percent of GDP in 2015-16.

In the last three years, the PML-N government has borrowed $25 billion in foreign loans and $30 billion domestically. Total level of public debt and liabilities has swollen to Rs22,461.9 billion, which is 75.9 per cent of GDP in FY 2016 up from 72.2 per cent in FY 2015[3] and likely to worsen in the next few years. The Fiscal Responsibility and Debt Limitation Act of 2005 restricts public debt at 60 per cent of GDP. To get around this statutory violation, the PML-N government has pushed ahead the 2013 deadline to 2018 to reduce debt to 60 per cent of GDP.[4]

The deterioration of the macroeconomic indicators reveals structural problems in the Pakistan economy that should be a major cause of worry for the leadership. This type of borrowing is unsustainable and together declining exports and remittances from overseas workers, the Pakistani economy is headed for a severe balance of payment crisis in the near future.


The foreign policy challenges for Pakistan continue to be Afghanistan, the US and India.

The key challenge for Pakistan in Afghanistan would be to accept the sovereignty and independence of the neighbor instead of trying to impose its own proxies in Kabul. With Pakistan trying to leverage the intra-Afghan peace process for its own gains, peace in Afghanistan would remain elusive. As a consequence, peace in Pakistan would also be elusive. This is a dynamic that Pakistan just does not seem to understand.

With the US, signs of a cooling relationship were already visible under former President Obama. Under President Trump this is likely to persist if not intensify, specially if Pakistan continues fooling the Americans by using US aid to fund the Taliban. Pakistan could also suffer collateral damage due to the growing US rivalry with China. What will hurt Pakistan the most is, if as a result, the US were to deepen its strategic partnership with India.

In its relations with India, Pakistan has banked on two factors: possession of nuclear weapons and non-state actors. The challenge for Pakistan is that India’s retaliatory strike after the Uri camp attack in September 2016 has rescued it from its self-imposed restraint of risking a nuclear escalation. In future, jihadi strikes from Pakistan could have far more lethal consequences.

Finally, while its friendship with China continues to be ‘all weather’ bolstered no doubt by the $ 46 billion (now $ 51 billion) China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Pakistan will have to ensure that the projects are economically, financially and environmentally viable. Lack of transparency and the fine print of the financial proposals are ringing alarm bells in several quarters in Pakistan. The alienation of the Baloch at being neglected in the planning and sharing benefits of the mega project, the water problems in Gwadar and the monopoly of projects in Punjab are equally disturbing signs for many in Pakistan.

Beyond current issues lie the major fault-lines of Pakistan. The innards of Pakistan- water, education, economy and population[5] have deteriorated to such an extent that the very survival of Pakistan could have been endangered. Pakistan faced an emergency situation in all these four areas about a decade ago. Due to lack of action then, it should be in the disaster management mode today, but there are no signs that it is. Additionally, even seventy years after its creation, Pakistan is still not sure about its identity. Neither is it sure whether it is an ‘Islamic state’, or a ‘democratic state’. Collectively, the resolution of these issues would require a leadership with vision, its comprehension of the multiple crises facing the country and its willingness to take resolute action to tackle each of the problems. Unfortunately, signs of such a leadership and vision are not very evident today.

[1] The Panama Papers are over 11 million leaked documents detailing financial information of more than 200,000 offshore entities containing personal financial information about individuals and public officials using shell companies some of which were to hide illegal wealth. The leaked documents were created by Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. The children of PM Nawaz Sharif and their properties in London were named in the papers.

[2] The Dawn Leaks refers to a news story published in the Dawn in October 2016 that purported to contain information leaked from a top-level security meeting held in the PM’s house. The Corps Commanders declared the leaks to be a breach of national security and demanded action against those responsible. With the needle of suspicion pointing towards the media cell in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) headed by Nawaz Sharif’s daughter, the government has been trying to scuttle any enquiry/action in the matter.

[3] State Bank of Pakistan Report 2015-16. http://www.sbp.org.pk/reports/annual/arFY16/Chapter-05.pdf, p-61

[4] ibid, FN 1 p-59

[5] Collectively called the WEEP factors. See the authors’ ‘Pakistan: Courting the Abyss’, Harper Collins, India 2016


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