Assessing Pakistan’s challenges

The state is considered to be heavily dominated by the intelligence agencies

Talat Masood May 29, 2024
The writer is a retired lieutenant general of the Pakistan Army and a former federal secretary. He has also served as chairman of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories Board


A recent article in The New York Times headlined ‘Conditioned Suspicion’ is a fairly true reflection of how the world looks at us. The writer had picked up on the impostor, posing as a policeman and standing on a highway in Karachi attracting attention of the passing traffic to be a ploy or handmaiden of the intelligence agencies. This perception, irrespective of its veracity, reflects accurately the extent to which Pakistan’s image has sunk in the eyes of foreigners. The state is considered to be heavily dominated by the intelligence agencies.

This of course was a sober commentary on a hilarious posture, of someone deliberately let loose at a traffic juncture to humour the public. It is a good gesture on the part of local administration to cheer up the people transiting in this punishing heat, but the government has to pause and reflect why it is looked at with suspicious motives and frequently questioned. In short, the trust level between the state and the public needs to be fully restored. Equally important is to improve our sagging image internationally. This would not be an easy task and would require a fundamental change as to how the government, as well as the society at large, conducts itself.

When the economy is in a free fall, politics in deep disarray, strategy lacking a coherent direction and the country on a steep slope, cheering the people and presenting an image of confidence and relaxed culture can at best only serve as an interesting momentary diversion.

On a more serious matter, it is doubtful that the present government with PML-N as a minority party in a loose alliance with PPP, riding on the shoulders of the army, is in a position to run the country efficiently. While PTI that still maintains a solid majority in the guise of independent candidates was manipulated and sidelined to obscurity. It is doubtful if this move served the larger interests of the country for it further weakened democracy and gave an impression to the outside world that Pakistan is essentially a security state with weak democratic traditions. But this is how our country’s power structure is built with politicians, military and bureaucracy having scant regard for democratic ethos.

Perhaps all these observations would have been irrelevant if the political engineering and other constitutional deviations had worked to the advantage of the state and wellbeing of its people. But this is not so and there are no indications of any corrective measures in the offing. The central question then is: how will the federal and provincial leadership address these grave challenges while conforming to democratic norms. Placing the country on a firm democratic path would require that people become more aware of their rights and the value of democratic principles and elect representatives to the parliament that truly serve their fundamental interests. The role of the media and more so of social media would be crucial in raising awareness on these critical issues. Moreover, there has to be a realisation that meritocracy will get a boost with adoption of democratic values and, as past experience bears out, give rise of middle-class leaders.

The security situation too continues to pose a serious challenge as the TTP and other hostile groups remain very active and their attacks in Khuner-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan on the Pak-Afghan border are on the rise. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leadership based in Afghanistan with the support of Indian and other hostile elements have stepped up terrorist attacks in Pakistan. The TTP has virtually declared a war on the Pakistan state and having coalesced smaller terrorist groups under its umbrella continues to brutalise people and the state. As stated by Interior Minister Mohsin Naqvi at a recent press conference that the March 26 suicide attack in which five Chinese engineers and their Pakistani driver were killed in Bisham “was planned in Afghanistan and with the help of local Pakistanis executed in Pakistan”. It is highly disappointing that the Taliban Afghan leadership allows the TTP to plan and execute hostile operations against Pakistan. Are the Taliban unable to restrain the TTP or are obliged to them to an extent that they have given them a free reign to operate freely in Afghanistan violating even the basic tenets of international and local laws? Whereas in sharp contrast, Pakistan and China are the only two countries that are engaging with the Taliban regime and giving them unflinching support to ensure that their people do not suffer.

The security situation on the eastern border, with India, is relatively calm, but relations with the neighbour are practically frozen with PM Modi refusing to engage at any level. As a matter of policy, India — in a bid to isolate Pakistan at the regional level and strangulate its fragile economy — refuses to engage with Pakistan. Whether there would be any change in India’s hostile posture toward Pakistan in Modi’s expected third term in office is difficult to predict. Although inimical policy towards a close neighbour in the long term will also hurt India’s interests and standing in the global community.

In sharp contrast, Pakistan’s relations with China are on a strong footing but Pakistan needs to fully benefit from what China is willing to offer and the onus lies primarily on Pakistan. The Gwadar port facility’s huge potential is only partially utilised. Lately, PM Shehbaz Sharif has shown interest in pursuing the transport infrastructure projects with Chinese leadership. According to Mr Ahsan Iqbal, the planning minister, the two countries have agreed to start the mega ML-1 railway project focusing on the dualisation of the existing railway network, and the overall upgrading of tracks connecting Karachi to Peshawar. Hopefully, these undertakings will be completed as scheduled.

The country’s leadership needs to focus on maximising Pakistan’s inherent strengths. Its location offers the quickest and relatively cheapest conduit for trade between Afghanistan and the world, between Middle East and China and between Africa and China. These potential advantages need to be maximised by improving the road and railway infrastructure, streamlining systems and procedures to facilitate trade and transportation. The government has to take a long-term view and prioritise these undertakings in collaboration with the opposition to boost economic growth and for the wellbeing of its people.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 29th, 2024.

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