By Ahsan Waheed
The Governor of Punjab was killed by his religiously motivated guard following a strike on December 31st that shut down the country in support of the Blasphemy Law; the Governor’s murder was followed by a massive street rally in Karachi in support of the same law and indirectly the Governors’ killer; the parents of a Judge of the Supreme Court were murdered in Lahore fuelling all kinds of speculation; most media debates on many TV channels are focusing on the divide in society between extremists and moderates; infiltration of law enforcing and security agencies by extremists; ongoing corruption scandals, lawlessness, the plight of the common man-rising costs, poverty, gas and power shortages etc, rampant (mostly unreported) kidnappings for ransom, lawlessness; and of course there is the non-stop coverage of politicians engaged in political activity that has no relevance to the street in Pakistan.
Summary of current instability in Pakistan reported by the media so far in January:
GEO TV reporter gunned down in Karachi-shot at point blank range in an obvious target killing; General Secretary of ANP (Awami National Party) attacked in Karachi-survives with injuries but one guard killed and the other in serious condition; a police official hacked with a sharp edged weapon in Karachi-seriously injured; Pakistan Railways likely to stop operations as they have run out of fuel and have no money to pay for fuel (have been incurring heavy losses with operations drastically reduced already); GT Road (Grand Trunk Road) blocked for nine hours by people protesting gas and power shortages; main gas supply pipe line in Baluchistan blown up by BLA (Baluch Liberation Army); PIA (Pakistan International Airlines) heavily overstaffed, running in huge loss asking for billions in bail-out and planning to hand over its major European and US routes to Turkish airlines; rail fares and prices of most edibles increased (people already hit by inflation); power shortages to be extended to nine hours per day, gas supply to industry to remain shut (gas and power shortages already torture to people in extremely cold weather); a daring daylight bank robbery in Peshawar and running gunfight in the streets; earlier there had been reports of a major bomb blast in Bannu(north west) and in Peshawer.
Political and Economic Issues:
The retraction of the RGST (revised general sales tax) and withdrawal of increases in gas prices under political compulsions has signaled that there may be no real tax reforms. Tax collection is focused on those already paying taxes and not on broadening the base leading taxpayers to question what they are getting in return in the prevailing human insecurity. Traders routinely evade taxes on sales offering customers tax free prices if they forego receipts. Street level officials offer bill-free power ‘connections’ and there are reports of illegal sale of smuggled fuel. There is no real move towards austerity nor are any steps being taken or examples set—the haves and have-nots are now being clearly seen and this has implications for the divide on religious basis as well as the rise of extremism. The Central Bank is reporting heavy borrowing by the Government to meet its expenditures, growing deficits, falling exports and a very heavy debt burden. Politically motivated ethnic strife is escalating in Baluchistan and Karachi (47 killed over three days including the Chief Ministers’ pilot) with no steps taken so far to bring the situation under control.
The recent defection of a government coalition partner (MQM) has demonstrated the fragility of the ruling coalition and the kind of pressures the government faces—eroding credibility and confidence in governance capacity– and raising fears of the long term consequences of an appeasement policy.
The military remains heavily involved in a counter insurgency campaign in the western border areas with increasing pressure from the US-Pakistan’s strategic partner-to extend operations into the North Waziristan area now seen as a sanctuary not just for those fighting in Afghanistan but for umbrella organizations (FATA and urban Punjab based linked) that harbor criminals and raise revenue from extortion, drugs, weapons, bank robberies and ransom to augment the flow of funds for the freedom struggle in Afghanistan– widely seen as a fight in the cause of Islam— and the insurgency in Pakistan. Anti-US sentiment continues to exist and grow because of the Drone strikes (a policy never fully explained) and the ‘myths’ that Vice President Biden did his best to dispel with little success.
Consequences and Implications:
The evolving situation is leading to a flight of capital and human resources. Except for remittances from Pakistanis working abroad and aid from donors there is no foreign capital coming into Pakistan. What is keeping a lid on what could become an explosive social situation is a semblance of prosperity in rural areas (less expenses on living, higher prices for farm produce), steady growth in consumer and service oriented ventures in urban areas because of quicker returns and the spending power of the urban elite, remittances from abroad and resilience in the average person.
Pakistan remains functional because of its developed institutions that are now under pressure because of a growing lack of competence and an overall degradation as demand sophistication declines. 2011 is being seen as a preparatory year for elections and 2012 as an election year. In spite of shortcomings and media criticism there is acceptance of the existing coalition government as the best alternative under the circumstances and there is still hope that the situation will be turned around.
What is leading to despair and desperation is the absence of a message of hope and reassurance from the leadership and the daily images of politicians locked in petty wrangling, personal agendas and moving in bullet proof vehicles within long motorcades. No one is calling for military intervention-yet, and this gives a time window to start turning the situation around —something that has to be done methodically and deliberately and not through reactive and knee jerk responses to events. This will only happen if there is a realization that the state is being surely and steadily overwhelmed by the forces of extremism and lawlessness in an environment of rapid economic decline —an unacceptable fate for a state armed with nuclear weapons.
Plan of Action: A methodical ‘recapture’ of the state has to be structured around the following major considerations:
A coordinated and integrated civil-military strategy and approach to address, resolve and deal with these crises is urgently needed. In a media dominated environment the military is sensitive for the requirement of full support from civil society. Civil society is being fed a steady diet of the governments shortcomings, corruption, incompetence and insensitivity to the plight of the people with little reaction or response from the government. The military hesitates to risk its credibility and cohesion by extending total support in such an environment. This situation warrants a civil-military discussion to clear the air and come on the same page. The civilian government has to take the initiative.
The image of a government that is in power through manipulation of the system has to change. Public sector enterprises need to be brought under the management of trustees or governors with impeccable records of achievement in the private and public sector. The steps outlined by this body should then be implemented -no matter how unpalatable.
A merit based system should become the norm and discretionary powers and personal or party preferences should be shunned. This will bring competence at all levels. This will include the bureaucracy and police where expediency has brought about serious decline. The people selected for responsible positions should be given job and tenure security and liberty of action within their spheres with zero political interference. This will involve a top down or bottoms up review of the existing structure.
No matter how unacceptable there is a need for federal offices like the Presidency and Governors to be non-political. This will reduce friction and put responsibility squarely where it should be.
The ambiguity in policies like the drone strikes, the US-Pakistan relationship, the war on terror and relations with India and Afghanistan as well as the perception of the military calling the shots is leading to serious problems. A ‘national policy Advisory Board’ with experienced policy makers as members under a rotating chairmanship from within can make credible and rational suggestions giving weight and substance to government policy. The Board will provide only advice and nothing more—with acceptance being at the government’s discretion. If well orchestrated this system can deliver results.
The ‘accountability’ process is turning into a witch hunt with its obsession on the past. A major political party (PML-N) has demanded accountability from 1947! This needs to be rationalized into a limited, ie ten year, time frame so that the past is not used to pressurize the government or target individuals. The judiciary needs to be consulted and involved so that there are no compromises. The country needs to function in a fear free environment.
There is a need to understand the degradation of the internal and external environment. Crime control, traffic laws, and procedures have to be enforced. The menace of kidnapping has to be eliminated. For some time there may have to be a ban on political and religious gatherings for security reasons and to enable officials to concentrate on their real duties. An example of austerity at all levels must be set both in dress, in behavior and requirements for transportation travel and official functions.