The challenges ahead

IT has been a year that one would like to forget. It has been a year of political turmoil, worsening economic crises and the return of terrorism. The perpetual state of confrontation among political forces and the virtual collapse of state institutions have pushed the country close to anarchy. With the prospect of sovereign default staring us in the face, the outlook for the economy seems extremely grim. Pakistan faces daunting internal and external challenges ahead. Can we come out of these predicaments in the coming year?

It is a dismal scenario as we enter the new year. The PDM government’s balance sheet has certainly not been encouraging. The fractious coalition does not seem to have the capability to take the country out of its difficulties. Its failure to take rational decisions has deepened the economic crisis. The internal discord has further undermined its ability to improve and course correct.

Pakistan is now confronted with the spectre of economic collapse. We are already in a default situation, with negotiations with the IMF on the bailout package on hold. Our foreign exchange reserves have fallen to a new low, raising questions about the country’s ability to meet its external debt-servicing obligations.

It is an extremely alarming situation, with no sign of any fundamental change in the economic outlook. It is not just external debt, but also a ballooning internal debt that has brought the country close to bankruptcy.

The fractious coalition does not seem to have the capability to take the country to safer shores.

Pakistan is now among the most vulnerable states. ‘Daronomics’ has increased our economic woes. Inflation has hit a new high, and our inability to open letters of credit has severely affected our industrial production; many manufacturing units have closed down or are working partially. The situation has gone beyond the usual patchwork job that successive governments had been doing for so many years.

Some external factors, such as the rise in petroleum and commodity prices, have also contributed to the worsening of our troubles, but it is mainly policy flaws that are now coming back to haunt the country. There is little hope of Pakistan emerging out of, arguably, its worst economic crisis in recent times under the current financial team. At stake is the internal stability and national security of a nuclear-armed state. Stabilisation of the economy is going to be the biggest challenge for the country in the coming year.

While there is little likelihood of early elections, the term of the current National Assembly will end in August anyway. Some eight months are left for the polls but continuing confrontation among the political forces will make it extremely difficult to hold free and fair elections. The ongoing political battle in Punjab has further vitiated the political atmosphere. Dissolution of the Punjab and KP assemblies could further destabilise the situation and increase pressure on the federal government.

Notwithstanding the military leadership’s pledge to stay out of civilian affairs, the shadow of the security establishment continues to dominate the political scene. While intensifying his attack on the previous army chief, whom he holds responsible for everything that went wrong in his less than four-year stint in government, Imran Khan wants the new army leadership to intervene in order to ‘correct past mistakes’. The former prime minister is playing a dangerous game by seeking the support of the security establishment.

His and his party’s refusal to have talks with the government, or sit in the National Assembly, has weakened the democratic political process. There is always the danger of the military getting sucked into the political fray as the crisis deepens. It will be a test of the military’s resolve to stay truly neutral in the power game.

In the midst of growing political instability and economic crisis, the return of terrorism has aggravated our security challenges. The latest wave of terrorism has now struck the capital, highlighting the resurgence of the outlawed militant network operating from across the border. Last week’s suicide bombing in Islamabad, claimed by the TTP, is a grim reminder of the spreading terrorist threat reaching the country’s power centre. Islamabad is now on high security alert. It is a nightmare situation for the country in the face of growing political instability.

There has been a dramatic escalation in terrorist attacks over the past few months, with targeted killings, suicide bombings and attacks on security installations becoming a daily affair in Khyber Pakhtunkhawa. In the past three months alone, the TTP has claimed at least 141 attacks in the troubled province that borders Afghanistan. Law-enforcement agencies have been the main target of the terror group, which seems to be operating with impunity. The provincial administration has virtually collapsed in the face of the terrorist onslaught.

It’s not only KP but also Balochistan that has been hit by the latest wave of terrorism. What is most worrisome is the apparent alliance between the TTP and some Baloch separatist groups. The nexus is seen as responsible for the series of recent terrorist attacks targeting security forces in the western province. Pakistan’s security forces had contained the insurgency to some extent, but the latest spike in attacks indicates that secessionist groups are gaining strength once more.

The resurgence of violent militancy also raises questions about our counterterrorism strategy. We are witnessing the virtual collapse of security agencies in the face of audacious terrorist attacks. The return of Taliban rule in Afghanistan has given impetus to the outlawed group operating out of that country. The recent surge in terrorist attacks inside Pakistan is rooted in the Afghan Taliban’s patronage of global terrorist networks.

Meanwhile, the country faces a myriad of challenges on the external front. Fast-changing regional geopolitics have had a direct bearing on Pakistan’s national security. The escalating tension on our western borders has heightened our security concerns. The worsening relations between Islamabad and Kabul is ominous.

How we confront these multiple challenges on the domestic and external fronts will be critical for the country’s future. We are once again at the crossroads as we enter the new year. The prospects do not seem to be too promising.

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