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Who is running the country?

May 30, 2019


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

THIS is the biggest question hanging over the economy as the government gears up to announce one of the most challenging and ambitious budgets that anybody can remember: who is in charge here? Who is calling the shots?

A few weeks ago, I wrote that Prime Minister Imran Khan risks becoming a figurehead, a ceremonial holder of office while the real decisions are made elsewhere. The context was the arrival of Hafeez Shaikh as his finance adviser and the rapid signing on the dotted line of an IMF agreement. As details of that agreement filter out, it becomes clearer still that the drift towards ceremonial irrelevance continues for the prime minister.

But even back then I had never imagined that it might happen as fast as it is. To be honest, I was under the impression that it will take months for us to get to that point, yet here we are, getting there in a matter of weeks. Perhaps that ship is being carried by currents that are only in part coming from the economy.

The enormous adjustment that this government is gearing up to undertake — pursuing a revenue target that is 35 per cent higher than the revenues collected this year — will take a rain of taxes and every ounce of goodwill at the White House in order to pass the reviews through which the Fund will be grading the government’s performance. All Fund programmes from 2002 till 2013 have been implemented when Pakistan’s relations with the White House were either good, or at least the White House wanted to avoid putting pressure on the Pakistani leadership. There was a brief interruption in this story — in the years of Salala, Raymond Davis and the Abbottabad raid — but those days ended after the elections of 2013 and the days of soft handling at the hands of the Fund returned.

It would be a mistake to take one’s own power for granted in times such as these.

That is not the case any longer. Pressures on Pakistan are mounting to deliver on the Taliban talks table, and the conventional wisdom in the corridors of power is that ‘we should be prepared for a backlash in case the Americans don’t get a political settlement on their terms’. This is serious business, and preparations such as these will require the state to be standing on the widest possible patch of solid ground — economically speaking as well as politically. Quicksand is no place to make a stand.

The levers of power that the superpower wields over a small country like Pakistan are still intact, notwithstanding the stupendous damage that the superpower has suffered to its own standing in the world community as well as the erosion of its economic supremacy.

Consider the language in the IMF statement that points towards the inclusion of FATF conditions in the Fund programme, even though these have little to no direct economic significance. Consider also this line from the latest Sentinel report put out by the US Department of Defence: “The DoD identified the Haqqani Network, the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), and Lashkar-e Taiba as groups that present the greatest threat to US and allied forces in Afghanistan.”

There is a subtle but important change that has just taken place here. This is the first time that groups like LeT and ETIM have been designated by the defence department as “groups that present the greatest threat to US and allied forces in Afghanistan”. This has been discussed verbally between Pakistan and the United States for years, but never found its way into writing. Apparently, some amount of discussion and debate went into the decision to put these names out in writing because the same report also says that “The DoD disagreed with the characterisation of ETIM as a comparable threat to the Haqqani Network and Laskhar-e-Taiba but did not provide a separate assessment of the group”.

All previous reports mentioned only the Taliban, Haqqani Network, the militant Islamic State group and Al Qaeda as operating in Afghanistan that represent a direct threat to US and allied forces. The sudden expansion of this list did not happen without any triggers. And it is hard to find what those triggers might be if one looks at all the attacks that have happened against the US and allied forces in Afghanistan from December 2018 onwards.

In subtle and barely perceptible moves such as these, the architecture of what such a ‘backlash’ might work through is being put in place. Towards the end of 2019, and in the opening months of 2020, Pakistan’s position could be under tremendous pressure if the talks have not yielded fruit by then. Awareness of this seems to be driving a sense of urgency in the security establishment.

It would be a mistake to take one’s own power for granted in times such as these. When gripped too hard, power has the tendency to slip through one’s fingers like sand. It is easy to see this when it happens to others, less so when it happens to oneself. That is why those who wield power with any wisdom keep an ear to the ground, to hear where the rumblings of discontent are coming from, and how they can be defused without resort to kinetic measures.

Who is running the country today? I want to know because I want to do everything in my power to convey the importance of this message to that individual. Looking at the prime minister the past few days does not convey the impression of a man who is running things in the midst of so much turmoil, so much noise and clamour. He does not look like a leader preparing to meet massive challenges, who is in touch with his people, one who cares about and feels their anxiety, their pain, hears their voices and understands their fears. He looks lost in his own world. Perhaps it is because he knows something we don’t, but I doubt that. More likely he knows only what we all do: that he is not really running things any more.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @khurramhusain

Published in Dawn, May 30th, 2019