Prognosis for Pakistan 2021


The year 2020 ended on a bad note for Pakistan. Financially it was moving downhill. It had to borrow from China to repay loans from Saudi Arabia. In addition, understanding its financial decay, China demanded additional guarantees for financing its ML1 railway line, as aspect which has shaken Pakistan and conveyed the message that China is aware it is pumping good money after bad. Work on the CPEC has also slowed to a trickle as Pakistan has no funds to invest on its part. Even its IMF loan hangs in balance as Pak is still to meet basic conditions laid down and the spectre of the Blacklist hangs on its neck.

The only work progressing at a fast pace is the fencing and establishing security arrangements for the Chinese-only city at Gwadar. Chinese intends to convert it into a naval and air base. There are also rumours that this facility would be used as a detention and torture facility for the Pak army. This has led to resentment in Baluchistan with CPEC projects now being the main target. The murder of activist Karima Baloch in Toronto by the long arm of the ISI has further enhanced anger against the Pakistan army in Baluchistan, not that it was less in anyway.

The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) has been gaining ground as 2020 ends. The major opposition parties, which refused to see eye to eye earlier, have now joined efforts against the Pakistan army and the current ‘selected’ government. Their rallies are a display of unity in an otherwise fractured democracy. The Pak government and the army are operating together attempting to break this group. At the end of the year, the government offered talks to all representatives, less Maryam Sharif of the PML (N) and the PDM chief, Maulana Fazlur Rehman. This was rejected.

The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) has been growing in strength and power. It has till now remained peaceful however, the illegal arrests of its leaders have begun enhancing local anger. The continued arrests as also enforced disappearances and extra judicial killings of Pashtuns and Baluchi’s has enraged these regions. While the Baluch are up in arms, it is a matter of time before the Pashtuns follow suit.

Pakistan has during the year lost its main backers, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The loans that they had provided to the country are now being demanded back. Its Kashmir policy is in tatters, with no nation, apart from Turkey and China, supporting it. Even the much- boasted statement of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), announced by SM Qureshi, ended as a watered down one of its previous ones. It has managed to maintain itself on the Grey List of the FATF with support from China, Turkey and Malaysia.

In December, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) declared Pakistan as a Country of Particular Concern. It stated that Pakistan is ‘engaging in or tolerating systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom.’ It added, ‘The systematic enforcement of blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws, and authorities’ failure to address forced conversions of religious minorities – including Hindus, Christians, and Sikhs – to Islam, severely restricted freedom of religion or belief.’ It is already under pressure to act on religious tolerance, an action anathema to its fanatical clerics.

As 2021 commences, nothing much will change for Pakistan. It will remain with few allies including just Turkey and China. It will face added pressure from the US on account of its Human Rights record. Financially, Pakistan will remain in doldrums. Mehtab Haider writing for The News of Pakistan had stated in Oct, ‘The country has to make total external debt repayments to the tune of $10.3 billion during this year. Of $10.3 billion constitutes $8.5 billion as principal payment of loans and $1.8 billion as interest repayment.’ China would not rush in with more funds aware that it would result insinking good money into a country, which may control but lacks the ability to repay. The respite it received due to restructuring of loans on account of the pandemic will only be temporary.

Afghanistan peace talks, which began this year would continue, as would the ongoing violence. If violence levels increase, pressure would mount on Pak to deliver. If they recede, Pak will receive some form of sympathy and support. Its control over the Taliban and Haqqani network will come under test.

France’s refusal to upgrade Pakistan’s MIRAGE aircraft, with US’s strict monitoring of its F 16’s has left Pak with limited air power capability in case tensions enhance with India. Its Chinese made JF series continue facing maintenance and reliability issues. Lack of funds has left Pak with limited fuel and ammunition reserves. These, alongside Indian threats of a counterstrike in case of misadventures by Pak based terrorists, has pushed Pak to reconsider its Kashmir policy. The policy is now largely diplomatic with limited reliance on terrorists and army support.

This Kashmir policy would remain a failure. With increasing surrenders of local militants, positive inputs from the DDC elections and low levels of violence, Pakistan will remain isolated and unconvincing on Indian decision of abrogating Article 370. Strong cross border retaliation would continue keeping the Pak army on the defensive. Its few supporters in the valley would also lose interest. Its desire to bring the Khalistan and Kashmir cause is anyway doomed to fail. The Pak army remains aware that Khalistan is just a pipedream and employed for fooling its public.

The biggest threat which Pak faces is internal, rather than external. Years of brutality, extra judicial killings and enforced disappearances has led to the rise of the Baluch insurgency. This insurgency is increasing in confidence and strength. The attack at the end of the year which killed 7 soldiers has shaken the Pak army. Though no group has claimed responsibility Pak has blamed the Baluchi’s. A photograph released by the BRA (Baluch Republican Army) displayed the booty it had taken from the Pak post. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), another insurgent group based in Afghanistan has also been active against Pak security forces. Unable to control these groups, Pakistan blames India.

However, amongst all internal threats, the one poised by the PDM is the toughest. The Pak deep state and the government have attempted every means to break the unity within the organization. This has not worked. The major members of this group are aware that this is possibly their last chance to change the internal narrative. If their unity is broken, they would never get another chance.

The PDMwarning to the army is clear. Either Imran Khan is forced to resign by 31 Jan 2021, or they would move to Islamabad and Rawalpindi and blockade them. They have also demanded electoral reforms. President Dr Alvi sought to strike a conciliatory note by suggesting a national dialogue on electoral reforms, though leaving the option of time and with whom to the PM.

The month of Jan 2021 would witness intense political activity in Pakistan. The deep state would work towards safeguarding its position and control over the country and Imran Khan on securing his chair. Who will become the sacrificial goat is to be seen. If there is no solution emerging by the end of the month, the PDM may push its agenda for converging in Islamabad. If that happens, there could be a showdown which could change Pakistan. It could either emerge as a true democracy where the army is pushed into barracks or witness a period of army rule once again. The world would watch the drama unfold.