Pakistan’s regional isolation is complete. SAARC has effectively been replaced with BIMSTEC. Afghanistan and Bangladesh have toxic relations with Pakistan. The Maldives is back in India’s camp after the recent elections.
The wheels are falling off Pakistan’s economy. Foreign exchange reserves are down to $8 billion, barely enough to cover two months of imports. Prime Minister Imran Khan is beginning to realise that he has been asked to drink from a poisoned chalice prepared by his mentor, the Pakistani military. During his election campaign, Imran had promised large investments in healthcare and infrastructure. The reality is that Pakistan is drowning in debt. While a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) seems inevitable, Pakistan is having second thoughts.
An IMF bailout comes with tough conditions. Two, in particular, have unnerved Imran Khan. First, the IMF said it would impose strict spending limits on new projects, including Khan’s pre-election pledge to invest heavily in healthcare and infrastructure. Second, the IMF would examine with a forensic microscope Pakistan’s various agreements in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). These have so far been a tightly kept secret.
He initially agreed to disclose CPEC details to the IMF, but later said Pakistan might not approach it for a bailout after all if Saudi Arabia (where Khan is currently attending a controversial investment conference) pitches in. The CPEC agreements, if disclosed, will reveal inflated costs, high-interest debt and kickbacks.
CPEC projects are a honeypot for the Pakistani military, which skims the cream off every business deal. The Chinese are alarmed that corrupt CPEC deals will show them as complicit, an embarrassment for a country where President Xi Jinping has built his leadership around an anti-corruption drive, jailing thousands of officials on charges of graft.
Even as Pakistan stares at an economic black hole, more bad tidings await it. In an article in Dawn, Pakistan’s leading daily, political scientist Moeed Yusuf wrote of a far-reaching change likely to take place in the India-Pakistan dynamic. He said that the growing economic and military differential between the two countries was growing so rapidly that India no longer considered it necessary to “appease” Pakistan by accepting its offer of talks.
Yusuf quoted Pakistani analysts as saying: “There are regular references to the growing economic and military differential between India and Pakistan and to comparisons with Nepal and Bangladesh when Pakistan is referenced. The mindset doesn’t reflect an India that feels a need to compromise with Pakistan anymore.”
The conclusion: Within a decade or less, Pakistan’s window of opportunity to negotiate a settlement on Kashmir will shut. The power differential would by then be unbreachable. Yusuf says Pakistan must, therefore, shift its focus from geo-politics to geo-economics. Translated, this means abandoning the jihadi factories aimed at India and focusing on the economy.
The complication, of course, is the Pakistani military. It has a vested interest in continuing a low-intensity, low-cost, low-casualty conflict with India to justify one of the world’s largest defence budgets measured as a ratio of GDP.
But even the Pakistani army can see the writing on the wall. It lost a gushing pipeline of funds from Saudi Arabia after it declined to send Pakistani troops to fight the Saudi-led war on Yemen. It is now beginning to lose confidence in China’s ability to replace the United States as an all-weather benefactor. China has been reluctant to lend significant funds to debt-laden Pakistan.
Pakistan’s predicament affords India an opportunity to get to grips with a country that has tried to bleed it for 70 years. Proxy terror attacks will not cease till Pakistan’s 10-year window of opportunity of make-believe parity finally shuts in its face. Indeed, as the economic and military power differential shifts inexorably in favour of India, terror attacks will spike in intensity and frequency, driven by the Pakistani military’s realisation that time is running out.
The military-jihad-mullah complex is so entrenched in Pakistan that Imran Khan will be utterly unable to dismantle it — a pre-requisite for transforming Pakistan’s economy. Besides, he can scarcely cut his umbilical cord with the army that delivered him to power.
Imran though has already failed on several fronts. He was forced to evict from his council of advisors a respected Princeton University-based economist Atif Mian because he is an Ahmadi, a sect reviled in Pakistan. Dozens of Ahmadis, regarded as apostates, are killed in Pakistan every year. Imran suffered another setback in last week’s bypolls where several candidates of his party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) lost, reducing the coalition government’s majority in the National Assembly and pointing to an early end to Khan’s electoral honeymoon.
India must now be resolute in rejecting a structured dialogue with Pakistan till its proxy terror attacks cease completely. Pakistan’s regional isolation is complete. SAARC has effectively been replaced with BIMSTEC. Afghanistan and Bangladesh have toxic relations with Pakistan. The Maldives is back in India’s camp after the recent elections.
Clashes on the Iran-Pakistan border have roiled relations between Tehran and Islamabad. Tension flared up last week when Iranian security guards were abducted by terrorists in Sistin-Balochistan bordering Pakistan. Iran has long blamed Pakistan-based terrorists for similar abductions in the past.
With China and Saudi Arabia no longer reliable friends, Pakistan’s era of jihadi terrorism will come to a close sooner than its India-obsessed army imagines. Pakistan’s search for false equivalence with India too will then meet a quiet burial.