People in Pakistan heaved a sigh of relief when the Shahbaz Sharif government assumed office, after a confidence vote in Parliament led to the ouster of Imran Khan from office. Imran Khan had made too many mistakes and notably offended the Army establishment led by General Bajwa. Imran even locked horns with the all-powerful US.
Problems in the Imran-Bajwa-American triangle picked up steam on the last day of the ignominious American withdrawal from Afghanistan. The then ISI Chief, Lt. General Faiz Hameed, strutted around Kabul like a proud victor. This obviously did not please the Americans, who invariably have close relations with Pakistan’s Army chiefs
General Bajwa, an old school disciplinarian, insisted on transferring Faiz Hameed, appointing him the Corps Commander of Pakistan troops on its borders with Afghanistan. Imran reluctantly acceded to the wishes of the Army chief. He appeared determined to appoint Faiz Hameed as the Army chief when Bajwa retired in November this year. What inevitably followed was Imran’s ouster, masterminded by the Army. According to Imran, the US was also baying for his blood, after he visited Russia for a meeting with President Putin.
The US has a track record of maintaining close relations with the Pakistan Army. It Is not surprising that the first important Pakistani from the new dispensation to visit Washington DC was the recently appointed ISI Chief, Lieutenant General Nadeem Anjum. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, better known as the son of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and former President Asif Ali Zardari, was not invited to Washington. He was merely given a meeting with Secretary of State Blinken in New York. In the meantime, the Pakistan coalition government led by Shahbaz Sharif has run into a multitude of problems. The real leader of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League is not Shahbaz Sharif, but his elder brother, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is now in virtual self-exile in London, purportedly for medical treatment.
Nawaz Sharif will, however, not return to Pakistan till Shahbaz arranges for the withdrawal of the serious charges of corruption against him. In the meantime, Shahbaz Sharif’s son, now nominated as Chief Minister of Punjab, also faces charges of corruption. There are reports of close connections between the higher judiciary in Pakistan and the military. This enables the military to mount judicial pressure on politicians and political parties.
Adding to these uncertainties is the forthcoming retirement of General Bajwa on November 27, though it is clear that General Bajwa’s nominee will be appointed as the next Army chief. While Imran Khan is in a tearing hurry for early general elections, the Army top brass will wait for a time of its choosing. There is, however, a distinct possibility of Imran being voted to power in any elections held in the near future..
Given the vulnerabilities of the entire political class in Pakistan, the military will ensure that it continues to play a leading role in the country’s national life. While it is too early to predict the results of the elections scheduled for October 2023, one cannot entirely rule out the prospect of the Army and Imran making common cause. India has wisely avoided any involvement in Pakistan’s internal politics. It is evident that as a result of its policies in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province bordering Afghanistan, Pakistan has faced a Pashtun backlash. Pakistan’s writ across its the border areas with Afghanistan will be challenged by the Tehriq-e-Taliban. The reality is that many Pashtuns on both sides of the border have historically not recognised the Durand Line, as the international border separating the two countries.
Pakistan’s writ in its Baluchistan Province is also being challenged amidst Baloch apprehensions of its continuing exploitation of Baluchistan’s natural resources. This disaffection has grown stronger because of resentment arising from the arrogant behaviour of the Chinese in the Baluchistan port of Gwadar. Four Chinese scholars were killed recently in a suicide bomb blast, executed by a female Baluch student in Karachi University. The Chinese are the most heavily guarded foreign nationals in Baluchistan, with the Gwadar port being major target of Baluch nationalists, who are also targeting areas elsewhere, astride the $62 billion “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor”. The focus of attention in Islamabad is now on seeking foreign aid, to save the country from bankruptcy. Speaking recently at an event, ‘Is Pakistan’s Economy in a Free Fall’, Pakistan’s former Finance Minister Hafeez Pasha agreed that the country’s economy is on a “free fall”. It was also noted that while Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves were hovering around $10 billion and its rate of growth was plummeting, India had foreign exchange reserves of $600 billion and a 6-8 per cent rate of growth. Bangladesh has foreign exchange reserves of $45 billion and a GDP growth rate of 6 per cent.
Over the last five years, only Chinese companies were investing in Pakistan. There are apprehensions that Pakistan could follow the example of Sri Lanka, which is in the process of learning about the impact of a Chinese “debt trap”.
The visit of Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif to Saudi Arabia and the UAE will, however, lead to a return of Saudi economic assistance, which was halted during the Imran Khan years. There is naturally anger in India over Pakistan’s continuing support for cross-border terrorism. Pakistan, however, now realises that it has paid a heavy price for its support for cross-border terrorism. It also knows that India can and will respond reciprocally and firmly to such actions. It is, therefore, important to keep channels of communication with Pakistan open.
The first step could be restoration of an Ambassadorial level presence in both capitals. During his visit to Pakistan in 1999, Prime Minister Vajpayee sought to move forward incrementally, by opening the doors for visits by tourist groups, to designated tourist destinations. It was agreed that tourism to historical places would be put in place. Such moves can be expanded, if the relationship is marked by an absence of support for cross-border terrorism. Options to respond strongly to cross-border terrorism should always remain ready and available.
The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan