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Pakistan’s manifold challenges: Can Zardari-Kayani duo deliver?

By C. Uday Bhaskar, IANS,

Pakistan is facing a series of multiple challenges that pertain to its military, economic and fiscal security. A severe balance of payments crisis is on hand, and this was starkly evident on Tuesday with visiting German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier cautioning that Pakistan has just “a few days” to raise billions of dollars in foreign loans. Six days, he added, not even six weeks, and this dire warning was reiterated by global financial agencies. On the same day Pakistan’s credit rating was reduced by Moody’s to B3. In early October, Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services had already cut Pakistan’s rating to CCC-plus which is even more bleak than the Moody’s rating.

Pakistan’s precarious fiscal situation was high on the agenda during the Oct 18 visit of President Asif Ali Zardari to China but the kind of assistance sought by Islamabad was not forthcoming from Beijing. At the time, Pakistan’s forex reserves stood at $7.32 billion and were shrinking at about one billion per month. With the traditional friends of Pakistan – namely, China, Saudi Arabia and the US – not being able to step in quickly, given their own constraints during the current global financial meltdown, it is expected that Islamabad will soon approach the IMF for a rescue package.

Needless to add, this emergency monetary aid will come with strict conditions and further impinge on the manner in which Pakistan wants to define and pursue its sovereignty and external relations as related to its abiding national interest. And here the unintended irony is embedded in the sequence of events that have unfolded in recent days and the blood-splattered Pakistani trajectory over the last year, since the brutal assassination of Benazir Bhutto on Dec 27.

On Monday, some factions within Pakistan and the diaspora in the US observed the 61st anniversary of the Indian military action to defend Kashmir – what is referred to as ‘Black Day’. For six decades now the Pakistani military establishment has made Kashmir (the K word as it is known in the India-Pakistan context) the leitmotif of its national interest and has paid a heavy price through seemingly audacious but deeply-flawed stratagems. The first K was leavened with two others – the Kalashnikov and the Koran – during the latter part of the Cold War decades when the former Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan and progressively, the internal challenges grew like malignancies in the body politic of the state. While Pakistanis themselves cynically refer to the triple A bind they have been in for decades – the combination of the army, Allah and America – this was further transmuted to the triple M matrix in the Musharraf years – that of the mujahideen, military and mullah in a metaphoric sense.

The imminent meltdown that Pakistan needs to avert – for its own sake and for that of regional security and stability – began in early 2007 when then President Musharraf fecklessly sought to sack the chief justice of the Supreme Court in a cynical bid to consolidate his nebulous power base. With the country already in the grip of militant religious extremism, the tipping point was reached over the Lal Masjid episode and the slide began from that point. The political writ of the Musharraf state was challenged by the lawyers on the street supported by liberal citizens; and along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, the military gradually ceded physical control to the neo-Taliban and its ideological affiliates. Ill advised peace deals were made with the religious rightwing to ensure regime survival and prudent economic and fiscal policies were not adequately implemented.

In early 2008, the civilian political leadership with Zardari and Nawaz Sharif at the helm were able to force the military and General Musharraf to relinquish the power they had appropriated. Zardari, astute widower of Benazir, is now the symbol of civilian power and a new army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, has emerged and the ball is in their court. But can they arrest the slide? The signs so far are not very encouraging. On Oct 22, the Pakistani legislature endorsed what is being described as a “historic” 14-point agenda agreed to by all political parties to combat the menace of terrorism. However, a detailed scrutiny of the text of the agenda reveals many ambiguities of objective and intent. Perhaps this was inevitable given the ideological divergences that exist among the major Pakistani political parties about core issues – the current war on terror, its ownership, the orientation towards the US and Afghanistan, religious extremism and its interpretation in Islam. And in this medley is the mindset of the Pakistan military and its perception about India.

There is considerable lack of transparency about the fine print of the anti-terrorism policies being adopted by the Zardari-Kayani team both in the domestic context and in the two major bilateral axis: with the US and Afghanistan. Alas, there are two inexorable clocks that are also ticking which can reduce the maneuverability that the current Pakistani leadership can bring to bear on the current crisis. One is political. The much awaited US election will throw up a new president Nov 4. And if it is Senator Barack Obama as is expected, the assertive action that he has outlined in relation to Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda will stoke the already heightened anti-US sentiment in Pakistan. The second is the fiscal clock which waits for none. If the IMF conditionality is the traditional recipe, devaluation of the Pakistani rupee and higher taxes will further aggravate already deteriorating socio-economic indicators and food security.

The important thing is the management of inherent contradictions as the key to managing the very complex challenges that confront Pakistan at this juncture. The Zardari-Kayani combine will need to harmonise persuasive domestic rhetoric with the uncompromising diktat of external realpolitik. The less visible but more compelling irony is that Kashmir – the single issue on which the Pakistani establishment had expended scarce resources with scant regard for rectitude – is now more manageable than ever before. Trade between the two Kashmirs has begun in a modest manner and an election in Srinagar is on the anvil. The people of Kashmir have never been more
hopeful. It will be Sisyphean if this silver lining is erased by the dark clouds that now engulf Islamabad.

(C. Uday Bhaskar is a well-known strategic analyst. He can be reached at [email protected])