Hydra-headed dragon

Hydra-headed dragon
If Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif were to look down the barrel of 2014, he would see five main areas of focus – foreign policy, terrorism, economy, executive-judiciary and civil-military relations. On the face of it, he may look sanguine about what lies ahead. After all, experienced and trusted men are in charge. Foreign policy is in the hands of two Foreign Office veterans, ex-Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz and ex-Ambassador Tariq Fatemi. Ex-Commerce Minister, Ishaq Dar, is lording it over the finance ministry. Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, de facto deputy prime minister, is charting national security/terrorism/law and order policy. Zahid Hamid, ex-law minister, and Attorney General Muneer Malik, ex-leader of the lawyers’ movement, are dealing with law. And both Sharif brothers are personally hands-on with the military, having tasted the bitter fruits of adventurism twice in the last two decades. But the fact is that each issue is a ticking bomb waiting to explode if it isn’t deactivated quickly. Consider.

For the first time since independence, it is Afghanistan, not India, which poses the key foreign policy challenge. When the American drawdown starts in earnest, a resurgence of the Taliban is on the cards. The Afghan National Army will not be able to hold the fort for long, especially if the next presidential election is marred by fraud and internal strife among the anti-Taliban coalition. A drift into civil war would lead to a significant backlash for Pakistan: on the one hand, a steady stream of refugees would impose a political and economic burden on two border provinces, on the other it would facilitate the Pakistani Taliban into building long-term strategic depth in Afghanistan in alliance with Al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. This would make the task of dealing with terrorism very difficult if not impossible. Some critical decisions have to be made with demonstrable success. Either the dialogue with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and the tripartite Afghan-Pakistan-Taliban reconciliation efforts will have to yield fruit by disarming and integrating the Taliban back into the Af-Pak mainstream, or they will simply give the Taliban time and space to redouble their will and ability to terrorize and progressively overrun both countries. The alternate policy option of Pakistan, Afghanistan and America joining hands to effectively degrade and defeat the Taliban will then go a begging.

The challenge in economic policy is to slay the hydra-headed dragon of inflation, energy shortage and unemployment. But the government’s initiatives on all three fronts are feeble and ad hoc. Borrowing from the State Bank and foreign donors for spending on public sector infrastructure or paying off circular energy-related debt is inflationary; delays in the process of retooling furnace-oil guzzling power plants to coal, or in importing and distributing LNG supplies, will bring back explosive energy shortages next summer; and dubious youth loan disbursement schemes will not even make a dent in the angry tide of rising unemployment without a significant increase in private sector investment in industry and services for which there is no policy prescription at hand. The specter of this hydra-headed monster plunging the government and country into riots and repression is not difficult to imagine.

The government’s handling of the judiciary and military will also be tested.  The exit of ex-CJP Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry has not diminished the zeal of the judges to constantly challenge the authority of the executive. This is a recipe for logjam if not gridlock. But there is nothing in the government’s armoury to suggest that some sort of policy initiative inside or outside parliament is on the anvil to stave off such problems.

The resurrection of General (retd) Pervez Musharraf via a controversial treason trial has put a serious question mark on addressing the imbalance in civil-military relations after a relatively smooth transition from one politicized army chief to another apolitical one. This last development has the potential to derail all the government’s initiatives and cut short its life. It is obvious that the military is prickly about the trial of an ex-chief that is threatening to rope in other serving and retired commanders. The public, too, is not too exactly screaming for General Musharraf’s head, especially since memory of economic stability, growth and wellbeing during his time is still relevant. Indeed, support groups for General Musharraf are expected to crop up as the trial progresses. The trial is also full of loopholes that stretch from the credibility of the judges to the highly selective use of Article 6 against one person instead of all those judges, generals and politicians who aided and abetted him in subverting the constitution in 1999 and then again in 2007. The Sharifs should know that the military and its intelligence agencies can whip up domestic storms and foreign policy crises at will to destabilize and derail government. They should also realize that this is not the time for distractions or recriminations, constitutional or otherwise, in view of the various other crises faced by state and society.

We desperately crave some good news to foster hope in the future.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.