Pakistan’s disaster could lead to a collapse

As if Pakistan’s implosion from within wasn’t enough, the gods have acted to further push hapless and crumbling polity into a major crisis. Prior to August 2010, Pakistan was fighting a battle for its survival on an existentialist and ideological plane. The central features of a nation-state had withered away, save the institution of the Pakistan army. If anything, the insurgencies in Balochistan, FATA and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and simmering discontent in Southern Punjab and Sindh had alarmed several Pakistanis and those in the international community who wanted Pakistan to be a stable state.

The colossal humanitarian tragedy and the imminent economic meltdown, will now shape a new Pakistan or rather, exacerbate its predicament in the months and years to come. Pakistan’s chronic political instability, structural economic constraints and a warped national security policy are all going to be affected by the unfolding drama of the national disaster, perhaps the severest, in the country’s history. Whilst the challenges have snowballed within a short duration of ten days, the response of the Pakistani state and society underline extremely dangerous trends and make us wonder about future of the country, as we have known it for the last 63 years.

Systemic shock:

Pakistan had reverted to quasi-democratic rule after a decade of dictatorship in March 2008. Since the resumption of the electoral process in February 2008, the traditionally powerful unelected institutions, had acquired both legitimacy and unprecedented powers. The power troika of the 1990s had transformed into a quartet comprising the army, judiciary, the media and the civilian government which was represented by a ‘discredited’ president who has been a constant punching bag for the unelected institutions of the state.

Notwithstanding the isolation of the elected in the afore-mentioned quartet, the pending reform of governance was well-executed by the political elites by forging a consensus around the devolution of powers from the centre to the provinces via the 18th Amendment, and by establishing the rules of the game on fiscal transfers. However, these advances were overshadowed and challenged by the bane of Pakistani state: the national security policy, and its proclivity to act as a rentier entity for the Western agendas in the region.

Despite the fundamental shifts in governance, Pakistan has been in the tight grip of the civil-military-bureaucratic nexus and its newfound ally i.e. the ubiquitous electronic media. This is why the calamitous circumstances of today are turning into a major shock to the political system, which may unravel its very existence.

Dangerous trends:

Three key trends can be cited here. First, the perpetual attack on the person and office of the President who symbolises the political consensus of the federation and, especially, the popular will for the smaller provinces. Second, the relentless glorification of militarism by using the pretext of emergency relief. To illustrate, while the President was demonised during his UK visit, not a whimper was sounded out on the Army Chief’s official visit to the UAE, especially by those who have been praising the ascendant role of the armed forces in ‘saving’ Pakistan. Lastly, the sheer failure of the civilian administration to install an early warning mechanism and cope with the scale and immensity of the disaster has yet again raised the questions of state failure in the civilian domain. However, this time the civilian failure is hounded by the large-scale presence of banned militant organisations and their cadres in undertaking rescue-and-relief work in Southern Punjab and parts of KP, which casts a dark shadow over the attempts of the present civilian government to fight extremism in the country. Things have come to such a pass that the Taliban are advising a sovereign state not to seek international help and gunning down Awami National Party (ANP) workers and activists even in these dire times. All in all, political instability is likely to grow and deepen in the short-term leading to a systemic collapse, which Pakistan is familiar with and which almost always results in taking recourse to an authoritarian regime.

Economic collapse:

It has already been highlighted even when the floods have not receded that we are now heading fast towards an imminent economic meltdown. Such has been the nature of devastation reeked by the calamity that our GDP growth rate estimated to be 4.5 percent in the current fiscal year, is likely be halved due to the loss of crops, livestock, infrastructure and exports. The recent figures floated while the floods had not arrived at Kotri in Sindh, was around $10 billion. Given that the flood situation is getting complex and the outbreak of disease is an inevitable eventuality, the final estimate of losses will be far greater. Rough estimates suggest that 30-40 percent of crops may have already been lost while the strains on budgetary expenditures may be beyond the capacity and resources of the federal government. In these circumstances, the economy has emerged as a major challenge and one linked to our earlier discussion on political instability, the future scenario for Pakistan looks far from promising.

In KP alone, vital infrastructure such as bridges, roads, and highways have been damaged beyond repair, not to mention, the loss of timber, cattle and housing stock. The Prime Minister and other responsible officials of the state have already stated that parts of Pakistan have lost decades of development. It would be too early to make further estimates of what may have happened given that 70 percent of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and 50 percent of Southern Punjab remains inaccessible at the time of writing these lines. Perhaps the most under-reported aspect relates to the energy crises that may erupt once again in the short-term. Qadirpur gas field and many power plants has been shut down for days and thereby, depriving the country of nearly 2000 MW of electricity. Pakistan was battling with a circular debt and regular supply of furnace oil to the Independent Power Producers (IPPs), and had barely managed to devise a strategy to overcome energy deficits. It seems that efforts made earlier might be, to some extent, jeopardized in the wake of the current situation.

Militancy and extremism:

As noted above, the two agents seemingly well-organised are the Pakistan Army and the militant organisations, inextricably linked through history and the national security paradigm we have followed. As independent field reports from national and international media suggest the people in southern Punjab and KP are extremely angry and frustrated at the inability of the state to act in a timely and purposeful manner. For instance, Jamat-ud-Dawa is already at the forefront of relief efforts in the Punjab, while the several offshoots of the militants’ alliances in the northwest are capitalising on the extraordinary situation that we face today. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that these two parts of Pakistan already poor, marginalised and victims of state neglect, would see a major swing towards Islamism.

This is where the real challenge to Pakistan’s policy-makers and the Western powers emerges. The earlier militaristic efforts (military strikes, drone attacks, search operations and rounding up of Taliban militants) were yet to be backed by large-scale development programmes. In fact, the need for a Marshall Plan for the conflict-affected areas has already been highlighted at the international fora by the President and the Foreign Office. But the floods and the affiliated disasters have turned the clock backwards. The challenge of reconstruction, already beyond the capacity of the Pakistani State, will now be confounded by the rejection of constitutional governance and a secular governance framework that the ANP and the PPP have been propagating since the last few years.

The Pakistan state, including its nuclear-armed military has been on the defensive and their personnel and installations have been relentlessly targeted in the last three years. Over 30,000 civilian and military casualties and 7 percent of Officers Corps (of those fighting the insurgents) have died in the war against terror. Given such a vast and effective terrorists’ network, the current crisis is likely to compound the extent of terrorist attacks and recruitment of militants from the disaster-hit areas. Many analysts had hoped that once the military operation was over, improved governance and investments would provide an alternative to lure of Islamism. But, such a plan appears to be a distant dream only.

Which way now:

It is absolutely clear that the challenges faced by the state on the eve of its 63rd birthday are gargantuan, if not insurmountable. Three realities of contemporary Pakistan make things even more difficult. First, there seems to be a lack of political consensus on how to approach the disaster as the political elites have been bickering and scoring points thus far. True to their historical understanding of politics as a divisive and competitive arena, the leaders of political parties have traded more allegations than presenting solutions for the current situation. Second, the private philanthropy, international donors and global relief networks have displayed a marked reluctance to commit resources and offer assistance to Pakistan in undertaking emergency work and long-term rehabilitation. Donor fatigue has been cited as a possible explanation: however, the issue is far deeper and pertains to the credibility-deficit of the Pakistani State. The reasons are simple: the reputation gained by the Pakistani government for its ‘double-speak’ and hydra-headed behaviour with respect to the war on terror. Further, Pakistan’s perception as a thoroughly corrupt society is also an unfortunate reality as confirmed by the recent Transparency International report.

Third, it is unlikely that Pakistan would be out of the Afghanistan imbroglio anytime soon, thereby making it prone to decisions or policies set by Western powers. Also, the India policy pursued by the security establishment remains fossilised and hostage to history. There are no signs that this imperative is going to change in the next year or so. It would not be unwise to expect that military spending will remain as high as before, leaving little room for resource transfer to the areas ravaged by floods.

Policy focus:

In these circumstances, what should the public policy focus on? There are no easy answers for this unfortunate structural conundrum. As a start, there are five areas, which should be explored by the federal government. First, a national consensus on post-disaster mitigation strategy would be forged through an immediate political dialogue and which should be manifested in the form of a national commission comprising of key political parties and members of the Executive (including the army). Second, resource mobilisation campaigns should be initiated, focusing on expatriate Pakistanis and those who have been transferring their capital offshore. Such campaigns must also be launched in major capitals of the West, with a clear signal that if Pakistan’s allies are not going to bail it out, then they should be ready for the dire consequences of its economic and political instability.

Third, this crisis affords an opportunity to reform the local governance systems that have worked in the past. The strengthening of district administration and setting up local governments as agents of reconstruction and rehabilitation must be undertaken as soon as the emergency relief tasks are over.

Fourth, this may be the right time to mobilise and incentivize Pakistan’s private sector to contribute to the rehabilitation of lost infrastructure by offering them tax concessions, enabling legal environment for public-private partnerships and ensuring that they are not victims to bureaucratic corruption. Finally, it is essential that a national communication plan should be developed whereby; the civilian governments across the country are able to respond to citizen requirements, check corruption and leakages in relief efforts and present a credible alternative to Islamofascist solutions for governance and development.

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