Pakistan will enter the new year in sharp contrast to the mood surrounding the country a year ago. Unlike a year ago when the country’s ruling elite sought to claim success over an increasing consolidation of democracy following the first ever transition from one elected government to another following the elections of 2013, the coming year arrives on a sombre note.
Trends across Pakistan in 2014 on the whole have cast doubts over future prospects, amid concerns over security conditions, the future of politics and the economy.
The year 2014 will be remembered for continuing challenges faced by Pakistan, notably the issue of militancy which was highlighted in the very extreme following the December 16 Taliban massacre of up to 150 people, mainly children at a school in the northern city of Peshawar.
The fallout from this event has prompted Pakistan’s leaders to consider extreme steps ranging from raising an army-backed force to fight terrorists, to the establishment of military courts which deliver speedy justice. Clearly, Pakistan is at war. However, the future of that war which is knocking on the country’s door steps will decide not just Pakistan’s survival but more importantly the future of its way of life. In the past year, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has faced questions related to his political legitimacy after former cricket captain turned politician Imran Khan and moderate Islamic scholar Tahirul Qadri, launched protests in Islamabad against what they claimed was evidence of widespread rigging in the 2013 elections. For the moment, those protests may have been pushed into the background as politicians joined ranks following the Peshawar attack in a show of national unity. However, questions over the ways in which politics is run in Pakistan are central to the way the country progresses or not in the future.
Though ruling and opposition politicians claim that Pakistan’s best hope lies in continuing on the democratic path, they have failed to articulate exactly how that journey will benefit those at the grassroots-level. Money continues to drive Pakistan’s politics, making it impossible for those on the fringe of the economic framework to ever attain positions of political representation and responsibility.
The past year also highlighted the degree to which Pakistan’s ruling structure in choosing its economic priorities has become simply detached from the mainstream. In a country where a state provided but largely dilapidated educational and health care system are in urgent need of repair, Sharif has controversially appeared eager to push large infrastructure projects related to transport.
A large six-lane motorway from the central city of Lahore to the southern port city of Karachi, an ambitious train project in Sharif’s home city of Lahore and a fancy bus project from the capital city of Islamabad to its neighbouring city of Rawalpindi, are examples of extravagance that will all gobble up billions of rupees.
In sharp contrast, these resources could best be spent on revamping institutions responsible for education and health care. Indeed, the ongoing initiatives and other similar ones in the pipeline can best be described as nothing short of a criminal neglect of ongoing priorities.
Meanwhile, the year is closing in Pakistan with a sense of urgency to deal with security conditions. These conditions are likely to also aggravate in the coming year as US- led western troops end a large part of their missions in Afghanistan, handing the responsibility over to Afghanistan’s own army which suffers from many gaps.
What will be the effect of trends in Afghanistan on next-door Pakistan? To that obvious question, the answer could well be an eye opener over coming trends. On the one hand, the Taliban and their militant associates in Afghanistan will likely muster greater courage to fight Afghan forces. On the other hand, their ability to launch more attacks in Pakistan may also grow.
Ultimately, external challenges notwithstanding, Pakistan’s future stability and progress will depend primarily on trends within the country. An important litmus test following the Peshawar school attack has emerged in the centre of Islamabad. Maulana Abdul Aziz, a pro-Taliban Islamist cleric, camped inside the city’s Red mosque has drawn controversy by refusing to condemn the Peshawar attack.
He rose to notoriety in 2007 when a group of pro-Taliban militants holed up inside the mosque sought to take over parts of Islamabad, only to be pushed back in a concerted Pakistan army campaign. Abdul Aziz was caught during that episode when he tried fleeing the mosque clad in a burqa— a head-to-toe veil worn by women.
In recent days, his frequent outbursts on Pakistan’s media have coincided with a Pakistani court issuing orders for Abdul Aziz’s arrest. The ball is now squarely in Sharif’s court. Ambivalence on the issue or an outright refusal to enforce the law will just make a mockery of the renewed commitment by Pakistan’s ruling structure to finally set a course for a qualitatively new future.
As Pakistan enters the new year with renewed promises of fighting the fight as never before, the country also needs to pick lessons from other crisis-stricken countries similarly faced with insurgencies. Such fights in their character can last for the very long-term. That said, the eventual success in the fight will depend on how far an unprecedented sense of national unity can be forged.
However, Pakistan’s leaders including Sharif, will find it impossible to defend the very democracy that they seek to cherish at a time when many Pakistanis are demanding a return to the past — the era of military rule over the world’s only nuclear weapons-armed Muslim country.