Picking up the pieces in Pakistan

pakistanBy Peter Drysdale

COMMENT: The bloodbath at a Peshawar school in December 2014, when Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terrorists killed 151 people, among them 125 children, triggered a 20-point National Action Plan aimed at retribution and securing Pakistan against ongoing attack from within.

The death penalty was reinstituted and more than 300 death row convicts were put to death. Military-run anti-terrorism trials were sped up and the military boosted operations in the frontiers at risk. Outrage united the country.

The National Action Plan, announced in January, was virtually the first counter-terrorism roadmap Pakistan has had. It was designed to strengthen the National Counterterrorism Authority, double down on action against communication networks between terrorist organisations and forego all mercy.

The resumption of executions, most of them of convicts who had been on death row for years, may have been a blunt instrument, but sentiment sanctioned it.

As Imtiaz Gul describes it, ‘the President Mamnoon Hussain and the Army Chief General Raheel Sharif dismissed appeals for mercy at special military courts, which were approved by the Supreme Court following the Peshawar attack.

Building upon Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which began in June 2014, military and civilian law enforcement agencies have continued raids against terrorist networks and criminal syndicates nestled in the mountainous northwest bordering Afghanistan’.

One consequence of Pakistan’s re-evaluation of its counter-terrorism measures, notes Gul, was to create an unprecedented space for critical debate on other fundamental issues. In October, the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence imposed on Mumtaz Qadri, who killed a former governor in January 2011 for criticising Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

But, at the same time, the Court supported calls to reform the country’s blasphemy laws, which it said were often misused in personal vendettas. This bold intervention would have been unthinkable until recently.

Twelve months on, the pieces are still being picked up and Pakistan’s development remains burdened by the security threat from religiously-inspired militants in its north-western border territories and criminal syndicates in the south that continue to thrive under corrupt political patronage.

The uncertain and volatile relationships between Pakistan and both Afghanistan to the west and India to the east, of course, feed into these problems of internal insecurity.

The year has certainly seen progress against religious militancy, with both the United States and China extending support to Pakistan’s efforts. China has promised unprecedented infrastructure investments, worth approximately US$46 billion.

Some see these investments as a game-changer for the economically battered country, says Gul.

Pakistan ranked at 126 of 175 countries in Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perception Index. ‘Midway through the current term’, claims Sajjad Ashraf, ‘there has been little progress in achieving a more clean and efficient government.

Road works have become the key development priority, yet not one initiative on healthcare or education has been launched.

The Finance Ministry, run by a close Sharif relative, unashamedly fudges budget figures, concealing the true financial position of the government from the public’.

No one is held accountable for inefficiency or corruption.

In our lead essay this week, Mohsin Khan observes that views on the economy are sharply divided. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the IMF reckon that there has been a significant turnaround in the economy and that Pakistan is now basically on track to become a vibrant and dynamic emerging market economy.

Most independent Pakistani economists, however, argue that the economy is still in the doldrums and that the real data ‘do not bear out the government’s or the IMF’s rosy view of the current state of affairs — or the prospects for 2016′.

It’s true that the growth rate in 2015 appears to be a notch above that in 2014 and is projected to rise a bit again in 2016 — 4.2% compared with 4%, and a forecast 4.5% next year.

Inflation is also down significantly, from 8.6% in 2014 to 6% in 2015 and is expected to fall further to 4.5% next year. But most of that reflects the fall in oil and commodity prices, not the success of monetary control.

Given where Pakistan is on the development ladder and the challenge it faces in absorbing a young and growing population, this growth performance does not measure up.

It’s a growth rate that will certainly not make a significant dent in the unemployment rate, with unemployment at 6% and youth unemployment running at about twice that rate.

Pakistan has to grow by over 7% a year on a sustained basis just to absorb new entrants into the labour force.

Without strong growth and employment opportunities, disaffection and the security environment will become more deeply entrenched.

The economy also faces massive bottlenecks in energy and transportation infrastructure. Says Khan: ‘The power sector is operating below cost recovery levels, with underutilisation of capacity and a build-up of arrears in government payments to the power companies … There has also been little progress in reducing energy subsidies despite the large fall in international oil prices, restructuring state-owned enterprises, and eliminating tax and customs duties exemptions (although) the government had committed to these reforms as part of the IMF agreement’.

China influence

In resolving a number of these problems, much could depend on external support and the broader regional political environment in which it can be delivered, especially the agreement reached with China to develop the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor.

That project promises much-needed investment in transport infrastructure and energy-related projects, including roads, railways, pipelines and power plants over the next 15 years.

It has the potential to reduce infrastructural bottlenecks, stimulate domestic and foreign investment, increase energy supply, boost economic growth and create jobs.

But the prospect for capturing this potential will be dimmed if Pakistan fails in its struggle to repair and normalise its relations with both India and Afghanistan, both because of how that failure would play into competing regional interests of the bigger powers and, at the same time, aggravate Pakistan’s internal security problems.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s quick trip to Pakistan to meet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif  over Christmas could prove a helpful step in that direction. – From

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