Dogs and Tails! By Najam Sethi

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According to “insiders”, COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa recently summoned six PTI cabinet ministers for some plain talking: (1) the PTI government’s abysmal performance was fueling rage on the street and hurting the Miltablishment’s reputation for foisting such a regime upon the people; 2) The situation must be redeemed in the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa by replacing the CMs; (3) the federal government must run with a more efficient and credible team, at least for putting the economy on track. Time’s running out, he implied darkly.

As a consequence of such “advice”, Imran Khan has blithely sacked Nadeem Babar and Hafeez Shaikh, even though he was lauding their singular expertise not so long ago. Indeed, he had pitched Mr Shaikh to the Senate so that he could continue as full-fledged minister of finance. Some more chopping and changing is on the cards. But given Imran Khan’s track record of picking his political teammates, we shouldn’t expect any qualitative improvement in performance.

Change in the Punjab, in particular, will be a hard bone to swallow. The Chief Minister’s recommendation comes from the “Home” Department and explains his survival against the odds. But the list of candidates acceptable to both Mr Khan and General Bajwa is nil so far. Mr Khan fears that any attempt to replace the CM Punjab will unravel the PTI alliance and lead to splits and factions, culminating in a golden opportunity for the PMLN/PPP/PMLQ to woo some and seize the provincial government, paving the way for an assault on Islamabad. Damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.

Meanwhile, the pro-active COAS is trying to ease tensions with India and “normalize” – forget Kashmir for the time being — because they have drained his budgets and stretched his limits. The long war on the LOC was very costly – according to experts, hundreds of artillery shells costing thousands of USD were being lobbed every day, not to forget the cost of maintaining troops at full alert along a long perimeter. Just the fuel cost of keeping squadrons of PAF jets in the air when tensions were periodically running high was prohibitive. In real terms, the defence budget is more or less frozen because the government’s revenue base hasn’t increased in the last two years owing to a slump in the economy, partly due to Covid-induced business lockdowns, partly to the harsh conditions imposed by the IMF adjustment program and partly to bad policy decisions by Imran Khan.

The COAS is also prodding Mr Khan to make-up with Saudi Prince Mohammad bin Salman who has been alienated since the PM decided in September 2019 to facilitate an Islamic bloc of Turkey, Malaysia and Pakistan to rival the OIC headed by Saudi Arabia. Indeed, MBS was so outraged when Imran Khan decided unilaterally to try and play the role of a mediator between Iran and Saudi Arabia that he pulled out his economic assistance to the State Bank of Pakistan in 2020 and hasn’t invested a penny in Pakistan since. Having persuaded the Saudis and Emiratis to facilitate a dialogue with India and relieve the pressure, General Bajwa has now obtained an invitation from MBS for Imran Khan to visit the Kingdom and renew ties and financial bailouts.

We also learn that Imran Khan is toying with the prospect of lifting the ban on some items from India after having earlier exempted medicines from the total embargo on all economic, diplomatic and social relations. This ban was imposed in anger in 2019 following Narendra Modi’s scrapping of Article 370 protecting the autonomy of Jammu & Kashmir. Our government’s unilateral “acquiescence to necessity” has prompted the Indian media to crow that Pakistan has “climbed down” on Kashmir. It is now speculated that High Commissioners will return and visa regimes will be relaxed.

Pakistan’s relations with America are also being managed almost exclusively by the Miltablishment because the US remains focused on its exit strategy from Afghanistan and the only institution with some leverage with the Taliban who hold the balance of power is the Pakistani Miltablishment. But Pakistan’s task is unenviable: for starters, it has to help “deliver” a cease fire with amenable Taliban to America while keeping a sharp lookout for a bigger Indian role (backed by the US and the Ghani regime) in the emerging scenario in Afghanistan. The Americans and India, meanwhile, are keeping the sword of FATF dangling over Pakistan’s head while the IMF plays the tune to which Pakistan must dance if it is not to go down the tube of bankruptcy and isolation.

There is an urgent irony in this developing scenario. In the past, Pakistan was described as a country where “the tail wags the dog”, that is to say a country whose foreign policies dictated internal political and economic developments. These foreign policies were in turn dictated by the Miltablishment’s obsession with a particular definition of “national security” focused on enduring anti-normalisation enmity with India pending an impossible resolution of the Kashmir dispute based on UN resolutions for an “either or” plebiscite. The more such a resolution became knotty over time, the more the civilian leaderships sought “normalization” with India, but the more the Miltablishment dug its heels in and derailed the civilians and their political initiatives. The Militablishment’s overlordship prevailed despite the civilian impulse for greater democracy and accountability of state institutions only for one reason: whenever the Miltablishment’s grip seemed to loosen because of internal developments, the Americans weighed in critically (1960s, 1980s, 2000s) with political support for the military and financial assistance for the economy that kept its anti-civilian, anti-India narrative alive. Now the opposite is happening: American military and economic assistance has ended with finality, the IMF and FATF are being used to tighten the screws and India has become a muscular member of the anti-China QUAD.

At this moment in historical time, the Miltablishment needs a competent and popular civilian partner to transition Pakistan to a “normal” country in which the dog wags the tail. The problem is that it is up the creek with its subnormal system in alliance with a quixotic civilian partner. The sooner the Miltablishment ends this confusion and puts its own house in order, the better it will be for state and society, for everyone.