OVER A COFFEE : The spring of 2013 — Dr Haider Shah
What is more important is to identify the challenges that Pakistan is facing and ask how the new government will address those
With the coming of spring all old questions become alive with a new vigour, says Faiz Ahmad Faiz in his famous poem. This year many issues, old and new, are begging questions for both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Afghanistan and Pakistan have historically remained attached through the umbilical cord of the rugged tribal region. The British rulers used this region as a buffer against the expanding influence of the then Russian empire. At a time when messages from one part of the empire to another would take months, the British were overly sensitive to the likely motives of another empire. The difficult terrain of north western frontier of India served as a natural barrier between India and any other ambitious ruler of the west. At times, rulers in the Indian subcontinent tried to control the tidings in Afghanistan using their clout in the tribal areas, and on other occasions, the Afghan rulers tried to extend their influence by playing the religious and ethnicity cards against rulers in India. After 1947, Pakistan inherited the legacy of British rulers. Exhausted and wounded, today both neighbours stand at a critical crossroad of history.
According to one estimate the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are operating in areas where 75 percent of Afghanistan’s population lives. Over the past two years the NATO forces have been handing over security responsibilities to the ANSF in phases. The ability of the ANSF to withstand the spring offensive of the Taliban this year and in 2014 will determine the contours of the new Afghanistan. Helmand has been used as a pilot phase where coalition presence was significantly reduced allowing the ANSF to be exposed to the rigours of the challenging task that they will be performing singlehandedly after 2014. As security in Helmand has not been significantly destabilised one can hope that the worst case scenario imagined for Afghanistan after 2014 never happens. However, a prolonged civil war between the Taliban and Afghan government is a foregone conclusion unless the protracted talks with the Taliban leaders bear fruit soon. A Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is not in the interest of Pakistan as well because it would embolden Pakistani Taliban as they would try to pursue the same ideal in Pakistan. As some Pakistani groups are operating from the safe havens of Afghanistan, sorting out the open wound of tribal region on both sides of the border has become a shared priority for both neighbours. Pakistan is trying to improve its standing by establishing new relations with various sections of Afghan people. For instance, recently Liaquat Ali Khan Engineering University, an $18 million project, was inaugurated in the Balkh province, populated by the Tajiks who are the second-largest ethnic community of Afghanistan. As a gradual departure from the old Afghan policy Pakistan, therefore, appears to be aspiring for wider relations inside Afghanistan.
The second tenure of Hamid Karzai, the enigmatic Afghan president, is coming to an end as presidential elections will be held early next year. He will become the first Afghan leader who will be replaced peacefully by a new leader. Who will replace him and what will be the political set up in 2014? Will the Taliban be part of the power-sharing arrangement or not? How long will the US government be willing to keep the Afghan set up alive by supply of bags of money through CIA? A US commentator poignantly observes, “Afghans have to be paid to fight; to not fight; to stop fighting if they are already fighting and to not start fighting if they are passive but restless. The whole country is a giant web of extortion and counter-extortion.” Will we help Afghanistan come out of this malaise or further confound its problems?
If Afghanistan is making a new beginning with a peaceful transfer of power, the story of Pakistan is also not much different. For the first time power will be transferred to a new civilian government through constitutional means. Will the elections be held or postponed to keep a political government at bay? With only one week remaining and the clear assurance of COAS Pervez Kayani one hopes that the dark clouds over elections will go away. Besides elections, the year 2013 is a year of transition in terms of the exit of key players of the power game in Pakistan as well. President Asif Zardari’s tenure ends in September while Kayani’s extended three-year term will end in November. The last important change will be in judiciary as Mr Iftikhar Chaudhary will retire as the Chief Justice in December. If these changes take place in accordance with law and accepted norms, institutional development will receive a big boost.
Who will head the next government? Perhaps this is not the right question. What is more important is to identify the challenges that Pakistan is facing and ask how the new government will address those. Pakistan needs immediate economic aid of nine billion dollars from the IMF to cushion its economy according to the Asian Development Bank’s country director. There is little likelihood of the IMF providing the loan unless tough and unpopular economic decisions are taken by the new government. Whoever is the new premier, the ever increasing existentialist threat of extremist militants will have to be taken seriously by the new administration. What if the Taliban refuse to acknowledge the sovereignty of the Pakistani state on its soil despite sincere peace offers by the new government?
Hope and fear are in the air. Which of the two will blossom and dominate the spring of 2014? Decisions made in this year’s spring will sow the seeds of what we will reap in future.
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding
member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org