Imran Khan Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: Pakistan was facing myriad challenges when the charismatic Imran Khan took over as prime minister of the country in August 2018.

Fight against corruption and corrupt politicians, hardline religious groups, dwindling economy and a face-off with United States President Donald Trump on the issue of war against terrorism were some of the major issues facing Imran, who rolled up his sleeves to put up a brave face and tackle them head-on.

And to be fair, so far he has done quite well in at least taking the right direction in a bid to handle these issues in the first five months of his government.

One of his biggest achievements has been in improving ties with the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE by making his first official visits to these countries. He made the right choice by asking these countries for financial assistance to bring Pakistan out of its current economic crisis. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE also responded to his call and provided necessary financial assistance.

Imran’s campaign to eliminate corruption is right on track, though it is a bit selective because it is mostly focused on his political rivals. He has made considerable progress in bringing change in the country, in line with his vision of a ‘Naya Pakistan’ (new Pakistan), but he is finding it tough to move forward with a number of socio-economic issues due to lack of coordination across his inexperienced team.

“The government is still stuck with the economy, avoiding bold steps,” said Dawood Mamoon, the director of research at the Islamabad-based Policy Research Institute of Market Economy (Prime) in a recent statement. “They are fire-fighting at the moment,” Mamoon added.

According to a review published by Prime on the completion of 100 days of the government, Imran’s administration has completed 43 per cent of its set tasks — almost half of those being in the creation of task forces or staff appointments, according to the government website.

Nonetheless, the government is still in disarray, with multiple ministries unable to implement decisions.

What are the challenges?

Money dealers count Pakistani rupees and US dollars at an exchange in Islamabad. Image Credit: AFP

1. Economy: Overcoming the limitations of a dwindling economy and checking the massive devaluation of the rupee are the top challenges facing Imran in 2019. Pakistan is already negotiating with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to bridge the $12-billion (Dh44.13 billion) financing gap for the current financial year. It has adopted a two-pronged strategy by reaching out to friendly countries and also knocking on the doors of the IMF. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have pledged to give $3 billion each to Pakistan to help the country which is on the verge of a balance-of-payments crisis.

The budget deficit has grown steadily over the past five years and foreign currency reserves have declined. The rupee has been repeatedly devalued, fuelling inflation. He needs to adopt confidence-building measures to attract investment both, from foreign companies as well as overseas Pakistanis.

2. Foreign policy: Pakistan is facing a gigantic task of improving relations with its neighbours, including India, Afghanistan, Iran and the Gulf countries. Unlike the past, Imran and the army chief are now on the same page on foreign policy issues.

Imran surprised the world when he offered dialogue with India to make peace and to open trade routes during his acceptance speech as the new prime minister. Opening of the Kartarpur Corridor between India and Pakistan is certainly a remarkable development to embark upon — a possible new journey to promote peace through dialogue.

Imran and Pakistan’s armed forces yet again proved that they were working in tandem when they responded to Trump’s call to Islamabad to help Washington hold peace talks with Taliban. The move helped ease tensions between the US and Pakistan.

In 2019, Imran will have to focus deeply on the plan to ensure peace in Afghanistan as it will help stabilise Pakistan’s economy and take measures to bring India to the dialogue table.

3. Extremism and internal security: Since Imran took oath, the security situation has improved across Pakistan, mainly due to massive crackdown on militant groups. Armed forces have managed to flush out terrorists from large parts of the country, but there is a lot more that needs to be done to eliminate sleeping cells of terror groups. Imran faces a Herculean task to reign in extremist groups seen as the biggest internal security threat to the country.

Though Imran handled well the ‘uprising’ of the extremist religious groups that staged protests over the release of Asia Bibi in a blasphemy case, he has a long way to go to eliminate extremism from Pakistani society. It is one of the most difficult tasks for him in 2019. Investors will never come to the country unless the law-and-order situation improves and unless they are guaranteed protection of their lives and property.

4. Population growth: The population ‘bomb’ has exploded in Pakistan as the country’s population has grown five-fold since 1960 to touch approximately 220 million. This is a huge burden on natural resources, including agriculture. With its limited family planning measures, Pakistan has one of the highest birth rates in Asia — around three children per woman, according to the World Bank and figures provided by the Pakistan government. The baby boom is negating hard-won economic and social progress.

220m

Pakistan's population, which has grown five-fold since 1960

5. Water and power shortages: According to reports, Pakistan is on the verge of an ecological disaster if authorities do not urgently address looming water shortages. Official estimates show that by 2025, the country will be facing an “absolute scarcity” of water, with less than 500 cubic metres available per person — just one-third of the water available in parched Somalia, according to the United Nations.

Imran is also facing daunting tasks of building dams in the country, but he will have to do it on a priority basis. Imran has a relatively good track record on environment, with the “one billion Tree Tsunami” tree-planting programme in his party’s stronghold of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province earning acclaim from environmental groups.