The latest suicide bombing in Islamabad today marked the first one hundred days of the PPP-PML(N) coalition government and the first anniversary of the Red Mosque raid by Pakistan's military. Strangely enough, disgraced nuclear scientist AQ Khan's explosive charges in his interviews with the media hit the news headlines about the same time.
Is this just another day in Pakistan's latest democratic experience? Or is there more to it than meets the eye? To answer this question, let's review the first one hundred days of the new administration.
Ever since the very public disagreement over the mechanics of the judges restoration, the coalition has become essentially dysfunctional for all practical purposes. The PML (N) ministers have quit their portfolios which are being temporarily filled on a part-time basis by the PPP ministers who have other full-time responsibilities. The lawyers, backed by coalition partner PML (N), have applied tremendous pressure on the senior partner to no avail. There has not been any visible progress or new legislation to address any of the pressing domestic concerns. On other issues, such as peace talks with militants, the government has reversed itself. The government has allowed A.Q. Khan, the disgraced Pakistani nuclear scientist, unprecedented freedom to discuss national security issues with the press. The lack of clarity on security and foreign policy has caused a great deal of unease in the Western capitals and Pakistan's neighbors.
There has been a rapid decline in Pakistan's economy. Pakistan's economic growth is now the slowest in five years. Mr. Zardari has summed it up as "economic meltdown". Instead of taking responsibility to fix the situation, the government and many analysts are engaged in a blame game, blaming Shaukat Aziz for all of Pakistan's current economic ills. A couple of new power plant projects have been initiated but it's too early to see relief from load shedding. There has been not much progress in terms of improving availability of affordable wheat. Part-time finance minister Naveed Qamar has presented a massive budget with thirty percent increase in spending year-over-year. This budget runs counter to the state bank efforts to tighten money supply by raising interest rates in response to strong inflationary pressures. The impact of high oil will likely get worse as government subsidies are reduced. Meanwhile, there is no full-time finance minister in charge of the economy. It remains adrift in a sea of uncertainty. The business and investor confidence has plummeted. There is very little investment coming in to the country. In fact, the capital is flying out from Pakistan to other destinations in Asia and the Middle East. Consumer spending and construction are slowing down. There are massive job losses underway. According to a BBC report, the free food lines in Karachi have been growing longer with people losing their jobs in large numbers.
As the new government attempted peace talks in all sincerity, the Taliban and their affiliated militants have used the opportunity to regroup and rearm. The militants, feeling quite secure in the tribal belt, are now threatening settled areas including Swat and Peshawar. The suicide bombers have triumphantly announced their return with a big bang in Islamabad, very close to the seat of power in Pakistan. In addition to the internal security threats, the latest statements by A.Q. Khan are likely to result in greater external threats as well.
Pakistanis are facing growing dangers to their political, economic and physical security. There is almost a total leadership vacuum in addressing the growing dangers and reassuring the people. This situation raises many questions: How long can the current situation last? What options are there for Pakistan, in case the current political leadership fails? Will there be fresh elections? If so, can Pakistanis expect a more competent leadership to emerge? Or will there be the return of the military rule as a lesser evil? Does the military even want to enter this mess? Is Pakistan in danger of collapsing and becoming a failed state like Afghanistan or Somalia or Iraq. These are troubling questions, particularly because Pakistan possesses a nuclear arsenal. I hope the current leadership is thinking about these questions. I hope they are capable of providing the leadership necessary under the most difficult circumstances Pakistan finds itself in today. The stakes are much higher now than they have ever been for Pakistanis.
I have several email messages re this post, saying essentially that "they are all bad", referring to the Taleban, the ISI, the military, the politicians etc. By saying that they are all bad, we are ignoring the fact that the greatest existential threat to Pakistan today comes from the Taleban/Al-Qaeda Inc., not from the ISI nor Pak military, not from incompetent/corrupt politicians, not from the US, not from India. Unless we all see this clearly and act to respond forcefully, the Taleban/Al-Qaeda will turn Pakistan into a wasteland, not unlike Afghanistan or Somalia.
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