External hazards

Published August 2, 2023
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at Tufts University.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at Tufts University.

WITH the government’s tenure ending and an economic lifeline in hand after months of costly instability, it may be tempting to believe that the worst is over. But considerable uncertainty remains, not least on the question of the country’s ability to complete a successful democratic transition later this year.

Pakistan is no stranger to the template of the hybrid regime. Indeed, hybridity occasionally seems to tide us over, eg, by buying us the outward appearance of stability, and momentary stakeholder convergence on key macro policy issues. But continuing hybridity comes with clear long-term costs. While the costs to Pakistan’s own democratic health are fairly obvious, it is worth specifying a steep set of foreign policy costs likely to accrue over time, not least because of the singular importance the establishment tends to afford to Pakistan’s external relations.

The first external area that ever-deepening hybridity at home will impact will be Pakistan’s relations with the US. On paper, hybridity ought to work well because the relationship with the US is extraordinarily complex, and because hybridity is essentially a political arrangement that creates a single-window operation for interlocutors in D.C., who will have little trouble interpreting where the balance of power lies. In fact, hybridity may even allow for clearer, more effective conversations on Pakistan-US military coordination, the main benefit of which will be counterterrorism. A revival of short- to medium-term economic engag­e­ment, furthermore, born of returning economic stability, may even create the impression of broad-based engagement with Washington — a long-held national desire.

However, the problem is that the shadow of either an extended caretaker set-up or contaminated elections later this year will likely damage the viability of the Pakistan-US relationship well into the future. Democratic impotency at home weakens the case for a Pakistan-US relationship based on shared cultural aspirations. This is especially true at a time when global Indo-Pacific partnerships are being packaged as liberal-democratic, even if the strategic compulsions at play are unmistakable. Ultimately, unless Islamabad can patch together and retain a more convincing democratic profile, laying claim to any kind of non-partisan stakes in the Indo-Pacific will be difficult.

Hybridity at home can impact ties abroad.

The second external arena that hybridity will affect will be relations with India. Traditionally, hybridity in Islamabad plays to New Delhi’s advantage because it cements the idea that civilians in Pakistan lack agency. But at home, too, India policy will continue to remain an unnecessary and dangerous tripwire. Specifically, the danger is that any potential policy pathways forward, including the potential resumption of commerce or trade, will never be seen as genuinely representative of the political aspirations of Pakistan’s populace, which includes close to 10 million Kashmiris. Should civilian politicians attempt to flex greater agency on India policy, this will likely prompt a familiar kerfuffle, the only outcome of which will be a further erosion of civilian power.

A related diplomatic area that hybridity will directly hurt will be Pakistan’s ability to effectively keep the Kashmir dispute alive abroad. Since August 2019, drawing attention to the Modi government’s revocation of Articles 370 and 35-A has been a mainstay of successive Pakistani governments’ foreign policy agendas. But questions around even the most basic tenets of procedural democracy in Islamabad will curtail the ability of both the country’s diplomats and the establishment to speak truth to power abroad — especially when that truth is geared towa­­rds calling India out for illiberal behaviour.

Finally, consider the very legitimate and growing issue of internal and external security. We currently face a resurgent terrorist threat emanating, quite possibly, from two fronts, and claiming the lives of citizens from Bajaur to Balochistan. While hybridity may give the impression of intense coordination and consultation on CT and national security, it is ultimately untenable. With the establishment distracted by extra-domain affairs such as the economy, or worse still configuring electoral outcomes, national security is likely to get the short end of the stick.

The most attractive solution to fixing capacity constraints will be for an overstretched security apparatus to start demanding an even larger share of the resource pie to keep Pakistan and Pakistanis safe.

For these reasons, if not more, it is worth paying careful attention to not just the path that is currently being laid internally, but to the external consequences that may follow.

The writer is an assistant professor of political science at Tufts University.

Twitter: @fahdhumayun

Published in Dawn, August 2nd, 2023

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