By Mosharraf Zaidi
There is a strange and beautiful concoction of opportunities being laid at Pakistan’s doorsteps today. It is unlike any previous alignment in memory. Dealt with properly, these opportunities can transform the political and economic standing of Pakistan for generations to come.
Pakistan’s leadership, both civilian and military, risks losing this opportunity because of a lack of confidence, limited vision both in terms of the time and the space continuum, and an absence of contrarian voices inside the decision-making circles of the prime minister, and the army chief.
Let us first examine the nature of opportunity that stares Pakistan in the face.
Pakistan’s greatest strength is internal. It isn’t on foreign shores, or in the treasuries of other countries. It is here at home. For the first time in over a decade, after the battering and bruising of the Pakistani psyche, a coherent set of actions by the state have renewed citizen confidence. The actions began in June of 2014, but took on a dramatic tenor after the APS attack in Peshawar on December 16, 2014.
In the ensuing months, there are many grey areas that Pakistanis rightly raise questions about, but there is also a lot of jet-black. Terrorists have been hunted down and killed, and the impunity with which some non-state groups behaved has been altered to a significant degree. The self-confidence of Pakistani soldiers, spies, policemen and judges is higher today than it has been in over a decade. That confidence is a vital informant of how the republic behaves.
Case in point? Justice Khosa’s clarity-laced assertions about what constitutes fair game in a discussion about laws in this country during the appeal hearing for convicted murderer and assassin, Mumtaz Qadri. The sceptics see all this and point to the overbearing role of the military in this newfound Pakistani buoyancy. The realists recognise that non-state actors and their anti-state militancy is being dealt with by the same institutional actors that helped create the problem in the first place. The optimists? We see a reestablishment of the writ of the state. It is a pretty good start.
Of course, Operation Zarb-e-Azb isn’t even the panacea for violent extremism in Fata, what to say of being a catch-all solution to Pakistan’s problems writ-large. A whole range of actors and actions must coordinate over a sustained period of time to address the problems of violent extremism. One clear implication of the military operations to counter the TTP and its various enablers has been a democratisation and rationalisation of whimsical foreign policy.
Pakistan chose to remain neutral in the armed conflict between the GCC countries and Yemen. This choice has had ramifications. The recent loss Pakistan suffered in a UN body election was directly informed by the GCC’s cold response to Pakistani appeals to them. Pakistan has demonstrated incredible poise to attempt to carve out neutral ground between the death-match that Arab and Persian cultures seem intent on engaging in through the device of sectarian conflict. If a coherent and robust post-Zarb-e-Azb Pakistani state is the first of many opportunities available to the country, its standing as a sect-neutral power in the Muslim world is a close second.
There is no Pakistani future without sectarian unity and harmony. But equally, if the Pakistani centre can hold – without succumbing to divisive Shia-Sunni rhetoric – there is little that can cause significant damage to Pakistani coherence (those that fear Pakistan’s ethnic and linguistic diversity understand neither Pakistan, nor its inherent federalist essence).
Third, China’s need to spur economic growth in its less developed regions, particularly across western China is an infrastructure financing opportunity of a scope and scale that is unprecedented for Pakistan. The boost to energy production alone makes the CPEC a transformative intervention. The various jet-streams of transportation and communication that the CPEC can open up are yet to be fully understood, but they go far beyond bilateral relations between the Islamic Republic and the People’s Republic.
Fourth, Afghanistan’s security, its land-locked status and the refuge that Kandahari Taliban took in this country in 2001 make Pakistani actions a vital informant of that country’s future. For decades, short-sighted and paranoid decisions by the security establishment have helped produce an Afghan discourse that not only does not trust the Pakistani state, but actively dislikes what it stands for. Afghan sovereignty should be a principal goal within the Pakistani strategic calculus, because it is compromised sovereignty in Kabul that causes Afghan leaders to look towards malign regional actors like India. For all the negative and toxic narratives about Af-Pak, the simple fact is that an Afghan transition represents a major economic and political opportunity for a Pakistan that is prepared to embrace opportunity.
Fifth, the broader interests of world powers like the United States, which will seek the support of strong, self-confident states in countering the challenge of non-state actors like Daesh in the coming years, also represents a major strategic opportunity – much to the chagrin of malign regional actors, the only thing that will prevent Pakistan having a critically important role as a US partner, will be Pakistan itself.
In summary, the combination of improved state writ, non-sectarian Pakistani coherence, the economic impetus of the CPEC, the regional role offered by Afghanistan, and the global role offered by the US represent an unprecedented set of opportunities that Pakistan can take advantage of, to help transform the country’s economic and political stature. The trick here is not in listing the opportunities, but in determining what it will take to convert the potential into kinetic.
First and foremost, a massive improvement in civilian capacity to manage traditional civilian roles (like making sure everything the CPEC needs to get built gets built). But also to gradually increase the level of civilian involvement in national security decision-making. If the principal counter-factual that pro-khaki voices present in defending the limited ingress of civilians in natsec issues, is civilian capacity, then surely better civilian capacity is a no-brainer. This cannot be achieved with the existing spectrum of civil servants, nor with the inane ‘rules of business’ that a class of mediocre actors use to perpetuate their unaccountable incompetence.
Second, the propping up of contrarian voices within the system, both at the PM Office in Islamabad, at GHQ, and critically at Aabpara. The jee-huzoori culture, especially around civilian leaders like PM Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan, is a toxin from which only those leaders themselves can free the country. Powerful, confident leaders don’t need to be affirmed every second. They need to be challenged by professionals who are rewarded for challenging conventional thinking.
Third, improved mechanisms to coordinate between the military and the elected government. There is little doubt that the PM and COAS tend to be on the same page for the big picture issues, but the less said about any similar coherence at the lower levels, the better. Without an explicit formal mechanism, such as the one already available through the National Security Division, the speed with which these opportunities can be converted into kinetic force will remain limited.
The most astounding feature of the current set of opportunities Pakistan has available to it is that they represent a set of institutional win-win-win scenarios that are difficult to replicate. For years, the great opportunities in Pakistan have always descended into an institutional competition. In the early 1990s, the great democratic transition and civ-mil competition produced paralysis. From 2007 to 2009, the judiciary versus military face-off produced a victory for one judge, but little by way of long-term institutional strengthening.
Today’s combination of domestic, regional and global opportunities can produce both individual and institutional winners at every level. It will require greater self-confidence, a vision that is grand and ambitious, and the ability to embrace contrarian voices during decision-making. Best of all, it isn’t a competition. The prime minister is just as capable of doing all this, as the chief of army staff is.