It won’t be clichéd to say Pakistan is facing unprecedented economic and security challenges; neither would it be out of place to suggest that so far the policy response towards each of these issues has not inspired much confidence.
Reams and reams of paper have been blackened with ink over the decades with excellent diagnoses and targeted policy prescriptions by experts in economic, security and several other spheres governing national life. It is another matter that policymakers have not bothered to heed such wise counsel.
Rest assured, in each case, it is the narrowest of vested interest which has dictated how policy is formulated, and even more significantly, how it is implemented. Where does one start to discuss the tragic consequences of taking this now unsustainable course for years and years?
The foremost consequence of such madness is that Pakistani policymakers and their policies have become a victim of habit. Even when Islamabad-Rawalpindi placed itself at the centre of the Cold War as a frontline state, it often made little sense. But today, it makes no sense at all.
It is the narrowest of vested interest which has dictated how policy is formulated.
Just look at how the finance minister, whose own obsession with keeping the rupee artificially elevated contributed to the current account deficit in his last stint in office, again thought he’d get away with ‘tough talking’ with the IMF.
He was openly critical of what he saw as his predecessor Miftah Ismail’s non-robust stance in negotiating with the institution on its tough demands. Mr Dar seemed to have convinced his leader Nawaz Sharif that he could deliver and was sent after ending his self-exile in the UK to ‘save PML-N’s political capital’.
The last Ishaq Dar negotiated with the IMF, Pakistan’s economy, its foreign exchange reserves, its growth rate, and most importantly, the regional security situation with US troops still present in large numbers in Afghanistan all seemed to be in Islamabad’s favour. He may have needed IMF help, but Mr Dar held a decent suit in his hand. The former army chief’s political engineering put paid to that.
In the current circumstances, even the most humble student of economics and geopolitics could have told him that either the country goes for restructuring of its debt, including the risk of default, or dances to the IMF’s tune as there appears to be no third option. Restructuring of the economy had to be next. It is mind-boggling, how he remained optimistic — he seemed to be the only one — that somehow things would work out if he stretched negotiations and played hardball.
There is no doubt that saving political capital has to be on every political party’s agenda but when governing, the interest of the greater good, that is the country, must take precedence.
One can’t even begin to imagine the burden of debt increased by the PTI or the unfunded subsidies it doled out when faced with the spectre of a no-confidence vote, and how it sabotaged its own accord with the IMF. The party’s attitude was reflected in those (illegally and reprehensibly) recorded conversations between the PTI’s former federal finance minister Shaukat Tarin and the Punjab and KP finance ministers, which demonstrated that the country’s interest was relegated to the back-burner, while party and political considerations became the greater motivation.
The cumulative effect of all this dithering, coupled with global factors well beyond Pakistan’s control, is that millions are now living in extreme anxiety in anticipation of even greater, historic inflation which will have an impact on the most fundamental aspects of their lives, such as their ability to feed their families, or to clothe and educate their children. This despite working long hours, often two jobs.
With the worst in terms of the economy still to come, the Peshawar suicide bombing of a mosque that claimed a nightmarish number of lives of policemen this week following a number of terrorist attacks in recent weeks, again indicated that yet another campaign of terror targeting Pakistan may be underway.
Who hasn’t heard brave words before such as those uttered by the prime minister at the ‘apex’ committee meeting attended by the civilian and military leaders following the Peshawar carnage, but with PTI’s refusal to attend, there is little evidence of unity in meeting the challenge.
Neither is there much optimism that a well-tuned policy response will be forthcoming anytime soon. There can be no doubt the TTP is emboldened by their ideological allies coming to power in Kabul. Contrary to all (official) hopes, the Taliban have done little to put TTP on a leash or even go through with their earlier threat of expelling it.
And the policy drift in Pakistan even in this critical area is manifest in different state functionaries articulating different, often differing, positions. Why? Are they not on ‘one page’? The foreign minister decries the Afghan Taliban ban on women’s/girls’ education, and the country’s senior diplomat at the UN in New York attributes the forced exit of millions of female students from institutions since the Taliban came to power to the ‘peculiarities’ of the ‘Pakhtun’ culture and traditions and not the rulers’ interpretation of faith. His clarification, and ‘apology’, after the world heard his thoughts in his own voice was not worth the paper it was written on.
Meanwhile, if the establishment continues to wield its influence over the civilian infrastructure, then it should not only be politicians who should be taking the blame for everything that has gone wrong.
It may be easy to let the PTI be blamed for allowing armed TTP fighters back in the country, and it did, out of fear or for ideological reasons, when those drawing attention to the dangers were labelled traitors, even jailed, but tell me who’d believe Imran Khan could have managed that all on his own?
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, February 5th, 2023
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