The gathering storms

The writer is a retired lieutenant general of the Pakistan Army and a former federal secretary. He has also served as chairman of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories Board

It is seldom that Pakistan is blessed with periods of peace and tranquility. The present and the near future present a fairly bleak picture as events are shaping up at the external front and internally. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has heightened tensions between Russia and the US to the Cold War level or even higher. Europe and Japan are fully backing the US, and China is standing firm with Russia. Irrespective of our leader’s pronouncements of neutrality and high-sounding statements we will be considered leaning toward China and Russia. Earlier attempts by our PM to play a bigger role were not taken seriously. This is not to doubt PM’s sincerity and where our interest lies, but the superpower rivalry and the Russian-Ukraine conflict is a big-ticket game. The adverse fallout of this conflict at the global and regional level has consequences for the economy and politics of Pakistan. Fuel rates have already risen sharply and would continue to escalate as US applies sanctions on Russia to throttle its economy. For oil producing countries it is a bonanza and they hike the prices in tandem with the state of security which is getting worse. But for Pakistan the Russian invasion of Ukraine poses serious diplomatic and economic challenges and couldn’t have come at a worse time. At the political level Washington is not very appreciative of Pakistan’s growing relationship with Moscow. This, however, should not deter us from maintaining a good relationship with it.

Fortunately, Pakistan enjoys a strong economic and defence relationship with Ukraine. Its Main Battle Tank, M-80, is of Ukrainian origin. Besides Pakistan military fields Ukraine make helicopters, electronic and night vision devices and the two militaries enjoy good relations. Trade in agricultural products is on the increase. And the Indian factor is fortunately absent. Obtaining spares for defence equipment or purchasing new items from Ukraine would pose problems until the situation normalises. Although most of the defence items may be available from Russian sources, these would be subjected to severe sanctions. Some of these components and spares are probably being already indigenously manufactured or sourced from China as there is a certain level of compatibility between Russian, Ukrainian and Chinese defence hard and software. Pakistan has faced similar situations in the past when embargoes were in place but it has shown considerable resilience and ability to develop components indigenously or find substitutes from other sources.

Moreover, the unfolding political scenario in the country presents a major challenge for the government. The opposition’s multi-pronged attack for unseating the government could be very destabilising. A no-confidence motion is likely to be tabled by the opposition in the National Assembly while they are all set to launch a street movement. In short, the opposition seems determined to oust the government and believes that the army leadership will not support or stand with the PTI. The question arises: how would Pakistan’s fortunes going to change with PML-N or a coalition government of PML-N and PPP in power. True, PML-N record of governance has been marginally better but the challenges that Pakistan faces today are far more complex and require a more unified approach. The Army leadership would also have to be on board. Our past experience reminds us that when political unrest occurs, the role of the armed forces enhances and democracy suffers — a scenario that Pakistani people have witnessed frequently yet we continue to repeat the same cycle.

The confluence of these political events on the economy which is already under severe strain can be devastating. Dependence on the IMF and the largesse of our Arab friends and Chinese loans will continue to rise — something that adversely affects our international image and political independence. What are the opposition leadership’s plans to revive the economy and restore political stability? It would be more relevant if they gave out their plan in the parliament rather than mere talk in cliches and abstract slogans before a charged audience. Apart from inefficiency and corruption, international factors — the fallout from the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the energy supplies — would adversely affect the economy. Prices of fuel and natural gas have already shot up. The world is entering a new, uncertain confrontational era with nuclear overtones. India’s hostility toward Pakistan continues with inter-state and people-to-people relations practically frozen. Afghanistan has yet to stabilise and the Taliban government has been unable to ensure that the TTP does not use Afghan territory to launch attacks on Pakistan. The object of drawing attention to these hard realities is to emphasise the magnitude of the challenge Pakistan is facing that the present and future governments will be confronted with.

Moreover, we live in hard times that demand a keener sense of judgement, different type of politics and courage to promote economic progress and political stability. The international scenario also demands a more sensitive balancing of relations between major global players and greater care in passing comments or characterising situations. Hopefully, our leaders comprehend these changes. What is expected from them is that their policies and statements and actions should reflect this change. If their speeches and general discourse hark on the past or merely ridicule or criticise their opponents then it is like a broken record which they keep repeating. To be more specific what is the agenda of the opposition parties if supposedly they were in power in specific terms of fixing the economy, creating an enabling environment for mature politics, giving due importance to parliament, and handling the current complex regional and global power politics.

Just as we have expectations from the government so we have from the opposition parties. A more succinct and defined role by the opposition of steering the country toward nation’s betterment would raise their profile in the eyes of the people. Seventy-five years is a long time and we cannot take cover that we are still struggling on the basics of democracy. The moment that government and the opposition show concrete results has already arrived.

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