While various Afghan scenarios in the aftermath of the 2014 withdrawal have been the subject of many conferences, its impact on Pakistan has escaped much scrutiny. The two-day deliberations in Paris this past week among officials, scholars and analysts from both sides of the Atlantic were, therefore, most timely as well as useful, thanks to brutally frank exchanges. The conclusions were cautiously optimistic, with broad consensus that Pakistan was likely to be confronted with huge challenges, both at home and in the region, with many doubting the government’s capacity and resolve to make fundamental changes essential for governance. Others expressed misgivings about the ‘establishment’s’ attitude to militancy and extremism.
There was consensus on three broad themes: first, on the importance of having free and fair elections in Pakistan, with some expressing hope of the emergence of a government that would be focused on domestic economic growth and development, coupled with socially responsible policies. Second, there was great emphasis on the need for the new government to remain irrevocably wedded to democracy and the rule of law to make institutions the drivers of political, economic and social reforms. Third, accelerating the peace process with India was emphasised, so as to enhance regional cooperation not merely for purposes of trade but also for regional understanding on terrorism, water and energy issues.
The one issue that generated the most animated exchanges was about significance of recent signals of a possible change in Pakistan’s security and intelligence agencies’ attitude towards the reconciliation process in Afghanistan. While there was appreciation for initiatives taken over past months to breathe life into the peace process, many viewed it as a tactical ploy to improve US-Pakistan relations which had fallen off a cliff, as well as an effort on the part of Pakistan to enhance its role in developments related to the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. A few were, however, willing to give Pakistan the benefit of doubt, speculating that this may well be a strategic shift on the part of the ‘establishment’, arising from its appreciation of the harsh realities currently obtaining in Pakistan and the near universal disapproval of its perceived ‘sympathy and sustenance’ to militants and extremists. There was, however, unanimity on the view that unless this was truly so, Pakistan’s own problems of security and governance would never be resolved, irrespective of which party or parties won the coming elections. Not only would the peace process with India peter out but Pakistan’s international isolation would increase and its economic straits would worsen.
There were also repeated expressions of concern about increasing violence and intolerance in society, with cultural, linguistic, ethnic and sectarian interests dominating the national debate. This led some to point out that failure to address these tendencies forcefully, but politically and with national consensus may well result in the country’s disarray as a functioning state. If this were to happen, it would not only mean a greater likelihood of terrorists getting deeper entrenched in Pakistan, but also of the theft or leakage of nuclear and missile technology and material — a prospect viewed in cataclysmic terms in the West.
The one silver lining for Pakistan was the widely held view that while the international community was rightly focused on the dangers looming ahead for Afghanistan after the withdrawal of foreign forces, it would be a grave error to ignore Pakistan or to see it only through the prism of Afghanistan. It was emphasised that tackling the deepening economic crisis and growing militancy at home would have a positive impact on itself, on its attitude to peace in Afghanistan and to stability in the region. This led to the strong recommendation that both the US and Europe needed to maintain their current levels of assistance to Pakistan, while continuing to urge Islamabad to see the Afghan withdrawal as an opportunity to resolve many of its own problems.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 19th, 2012.