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Thursday, February 2, 2023

Reflections: Six Events That Changed Pakistan for the Worst in 2022

By Jay Rover

Former army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa (R) handing over the baton of command to General Asim Munir as the new army chief in Rawalpindi on November 29. It was a unique event which was bigger than the oath-taking ceremony of an elected Pakistani president or prime minister and was broadcast live on national television. (Photo via video stream screenshot)

Pakistan entered 2023 as a weaker country than before. Thanks to a mafia-like political elite that has ganged up in cahoots with a few politically adventurous generals, the country is almost bankrupt, national institutions are on the verge of collapse, and terrorist groups are reorganized and resurgent. The following major events contributed to changing Pakistan beyond recognition of what it was on December 31, 2021.

1- Constitutional Crisis:
The military instigated a constitutional crisis in March that saw the unceremonial ouster of Imran Khan’s government through a controversial no-confidence motion. Money, intimidation, political pressure and the judiciary’s shameful role prepared grounds for horsetrading that brought Khan’s government down. It was the first time in the country’s history that an elected government was sent packing by the parliament. The political engineering led to a constitutional crisis that persists and has made the country more unstable by the day.

The country’s poisonous politics has gone full circle from dictatorships of the past to pseudo-democracy to indirect dictatorship again. The military-installed political puppets are refusing to hold elections despite popular demands. Several men in uniform and the compromised corrupt-to-the-core judiciary all are contributing to increasing the political instability by denying Pakistanis their constitutional right to elect a new government through fair and transparent elections. Reason: popular fear that Imran Khan will return to power even with a bigger mandate. Khan and his party have won pretty much all by-elections since his ouster.

2- A partisan military despite the change of guards at GHQ:
Despite denials, the military remained under unprecedented public condemnation for its visible political role. The majority of Pakistanis accused Qamar Javed Bajwa, the former army chief, of plotting the crisis that derailed Pakistan from the trajectory it was on – registering record exports, receiving record remittances, record tax collection and record production in at least four major crops.

General Bajwa’s political role divided the Pakistani nation at an unprecedented level and made him one of the most unpopular generals in Pakistan’s history after Yahya Khan, Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf. Bajwa created an unbelievable wedge between the common Pakistanis and the military, not seen in recent history. His conduct brought into power the Pakistan Democratic Movement led by Mian Shahbaz Sharif, on the day he was to be formally charged in a money-laundering case.

The change in government (or the regime change as PTI calls it) turned out to be a nightmare for common Pakistanis who suffered the worst economic downturn and historic inflation. It was during this period that Arshad Sharif, one of Pakistan’s best-known investigative journalists and a known critic of the government and Bajwa, was forced to leave Pakistan, and later murdered in Kenya under questionable circumstances on October 23. Less than two weeks later PTI chairman Imran khan survived an assassination attempt in Wazirabad on November 3rd.

Both Imran Khan and Arshad Sharif’s family accused a few generals of the Pakistan Army, Bajwa included, of being involved in the two incidents. Khan even wanted to nominate Major General Faisal Naseer of Inter-Services Intelligence along with Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif and his interior minister Rana Sanaullah in the FIR. However, no such report has so far been filed and the investigation remains inconclusive.

The investigation into Sharif’s murder has also remained inconclusive and the killers are still at large despite the two-member official investigators concluding that Sharif’s was a premeditated murder. Pakistani media remained under unprecedented pressure during this time forcing respectable journalists to leave the country.

Instances of violence against journalists continued. Shifa Yousafzai, another known critic of the government, was also subjected to intimidation when security officials allegedly raided her home in Islamabad. An investigation into this incident is also incomplete with attackers remaining at large. Similarly, Shabaz Gill and Azam Swati, two confidants of Khan, were subjected to the worst kind of torture and humiliation by the country’s intelligence community. Their only fault was to raise questions about the conduct of a few generals.

Pakistan also remained in the grips of rumors about Bajwa’s extension in service who was to, and did, retire on November 29. Bajwa has been accused by his critics of maneuvering unsuccessfully to get an extension even during his last days in office.

The end of November dawned a new era under General Asim Munir as the new Chief of the Army Staff. Pakistanis expected, and still expect, that the new chief will reverse the massive human rights violations, political blackmail and intimidation which were pursued by Bajwa. But contrary to these expectations, General Munir has so far failed to convince Pakistanis that the era of intimidation, torture and victimization is over. Some of his early appointments raised eyebrows and new fears that Pakistan is unlikely to come out of the military’s damaging shadow under the new chief.

General Munir sent some wrong signals soon after taking over. The most interesting appointment was of Lt. General Babar Iftikhar, a known politically ambitious general, as the new Corp Commander of Karachi. Within weeks after General Iftikhar’s arrival in Karachi, a new chapter of political engineering got underway in the cosmopolitan city. An organized campaign was launched to “unite” the different factions of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, notorious for its role in urban terrorism. It is widely believed that the military is preparing the ground for a new political force that could challenge Khan’s PTI in the next elections in Karachi where PTI won almost all the national assembly seats.

Similarly, the controversial chief of the ISI Lt General Nadeem Anjum, a known opponent of Imran Khan, and his deputy Major General Faisal Naseer, remain in their positions and allegedly continue to pursue their policies of vendetta. Thus an emerging consensus among Pakistan watchers is that little may change under the new army chief, which is bad news for human rights and the future of democracy in Pakistan.

Will Pakistan see free and fair elections under a compromised deep state is anybody’s guess? But what is certain is that more political instability will increase the country’s freefall towards lawlessness and economic meltdown.

3- Climate Change-driven cataclysmic floods

Pakistan is on the list of ten countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. These fears came true during the 2022 monsoon season when the country saw unprecedented floods.

Up to 33 million people were affected amid widespread devastation. More than 1700 people and millions of cattle heads were killed with large parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh and Balochistan being inundated. Between 50% to 90% of the cotton, chilies, fruits and other crops were destroyed, causing a food crisis in the country. The floods cost the country’s already troubled economy a whopping 33 billion dollars in damages.

A UN report said about eight million are still potentially exposed to floods or live close to affected areas.

4- Economic crisis and inflation:

Floods, economic mismanagement and supply chain issues because of the Ukraine war coupled with political instability brought Pakistan’s economy to its knees. The country’s balance of payment, budget deficit, national reserves, and any and all related economic indicators are in red.

The national reserves, which stood at almost 17 billion dollars in April when Imran Khan’s government was removed, have gone down to less than 5.8 billion dollars. Similarly, there is a drop in exports, remittances and even domestic tax collection. Many experts believe the country has technically defaulted as the banks have stopped opening new letters of credit for import orders and there is a growing shortage of dollars and other foreign currencies.

If the country continues to pass through self-inflicted political uncertainty, the economy is unlikely to come out of the ongoing collapse.

5- Rise in incidents of terrorism and growing military casualties

The outgoing year also saw the Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan regaining ground in several parts of Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa. The years-long sacrifice of blood and treasure all started going waste as Taliban fighters started emerging in parts of Swat valley (which has no direct border with Afghanistan) in early August. Videos of the alleged kidnapping of Pakistani security officials emerged on social media on August 9, shocking the nation.

Thousands of locals staged protests against the presence of terrorists in North and South Waziristan agencies. Similar, spontaneous protests were witnessed in different parts of Swat valley and adjoining upper and lower Dir districts. But there was complete and strange silence from Pakistan’s deep state much of which was allegedly invested in managing the country’s political elite.

Attacks on security forces spiked soon after TTP announced ending its “ceasefire” with the government on November 28 after its negotiations with the Pakistani government broke down in Afghanistan. The military released some of the country’s most feared terrorists, including Muslim Khan of “Butcher of Swat” fame, in exchange for the short-lived ceasefire. The sudden spike in TTP attacks continued to take a heavy toll on security forces, making December the most bloody month for the army in years.

The military also conducted successful military operations taking down many of the militants. The high drama at Bannu’s Counter-terrorism department office was one of them which culminated in the killing of 25 terrorists and the martyrdom of at least three soldiers of Pakistan’s Special Services Group on December 21.

One dangerous development in the ongoing security crisis is the reports that at least one Baloch separatist group is joining hands with the TTP. There are growing signs that Pakistan’s military is planning yet another operation against the TTP terrorists. But the million dollars question is can Pakistan defeat TTP if its terrorists continue to enjoy safe havens and state hospitality across the Durand Line in Afghanistan? Pakistani military’s old buddies in Kabul are becoming a new headache for it and may turn into a crisis if early action is not taken against TTP bases even inside Afghanistan.

In short, 2023 will be a challenging year for Pakistan in its fight against terrorism given the changed geopolitical situation and the weakening writ of the state over its geography. Pakistan cannot afford to let the gains against terrorists reverse so quickly. It will have to restore state writ in the pockets of the border regions where terrorists are finding a foothold.

6- Brain drain

Pakistan’s brain drain situation aggravated in 2022, as more than 750,000 educated youth chose to seek employment overseas mainly because of the uncertain economic and political situation amid shrinking job opportunities in the country.

The Express Tribune, one of Pakistan’s leading English language dailies, reported on December 12, that 765,000 people left Pakistan for abroad in 2022, nearly triple the 225,000 departures in 2021 and 288,000 emigrants in 2020. This year’s data also included 92,000 highly-educated people such as doctors, engineers, information technology experts and accountants.

This new challenge could effectively retard Pakistan’s ambitions to become a hub of new ideas and technologies and manifest people’s growing distrust in the country’s ability to turn around the sorry state of affairs afflicting it.

Pakistan was largely doing fine before Khan’s ouster. The PTI government was showing more promise than the current band of political opportunists and turncoats bundled together under the military’s watch. Khan government has had its share of weaknesses in delivery in some sectors but overall its direction was right.

The puppets in power have so far delivered bad governance and whitewashed their political and financial corruption through a pliant judiciary. The new year will certainly be a year full of challenges and the only way out is for the military to clean the mess it engineered to create by holding free and fair elections before it is too late.

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