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January 2nd, 2015

A bittersweet year for Pakistan

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Editor

January 2nd, 2015

A bittersweet year for Pakistan

1 comment

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

S. Mahmud Ali looks back at Pakistan in 2014, a year characterised by a mixture of ongoing malaise but also, in some instances, guarded optimism. He acknowledges the nation has many challenges to confront in 2015 and suggests that only by crafting a narrative of national purpose can Pakistan begin to address them.

For many Pakistanis, the proudest moment came when the Nobel Committee awarded the 2014 Peace Prize to the teenager Malala Yousafzai along with India’s Kailash Satyarthi for ‘their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education’.

The youngest laureate ever, Malala was the second Pakistani after Abdus Salam, who shared the 1979 Physics prize. Malala’s fame spread after she was shot in the head by Islamists determined to stop her campaign for girls’ education. Threats from her still-at-large attackers prevented Malala’s return home. Salam’s fate was marginally better. Demonised as an apostate and a foreign agent, Salam was feted abroad but despised at home. The dichotomy illuminated contradictions haunting Pakistan.

For the average citizen, power shortages, inflation, unemployment and violent insecurity challenged hope. Economic prospects, while improving, underscored the need for difficult structural and institutional reforms. The peaceful transfer of power from one elected government to another, after Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) won parliamentary elections in May (the first such transfer in Pakistan’s history) promised progress, but euphoria proved premature.

Angry rivals challenged Sharif. Populist cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and Canada-based cleric Tahirul Qadri led large processions to the national capital, Islamabad, demanding the prime minister’s resignation. They accused Sharif of having rigged his electoral landslide, and of corruption in office. Shrugging these allegations off, Sharif offered talks but refused to resign. An uneasy stand-off prevented a scheduled state visit by China’s President Xi Jinping. Public anger and economic losses notwithstanding, Pakistan’s parliament endorsed Sharif. Qadri left but Khan persevered, if to uncertain ends.

Nature inflicted additional pain. Monsoon downpours inundated Pakistan’s agricultural heartland. Millions of farmers took months to recover from the shock of destroyed crops and devastated lives.

Relations with neighbours fared somewhat better. Sporadic exchanges of fire between Pakistani and Indian troops along the Line of Control dividing disputed Kashmir continued through 2014. Sharif’s presence at the swearing in of India’s newly elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, tantalisingly suggested a thaw, but the reality proved starker. They even failed to agree on a transportation and communication initiative that Modi launched at the annual regional summit in November. Given the rancour, a modest accord on energy-sharing was considered a victory.

On the other hand, improvements could be detected in Pakistan–Afghanistan relations, long embittered by ethnic and cultural overlaps, boundary disputes, Pakistan’s search for much-discredited strategic depth in the face of an unfriendly India, and Kabul’s quest for relief after decades of internecine bloodletting and external torment. Newly elected President Ashraf Ghani’s personal initiatives helped.

Uncertainties flowing from the withdrawal of US-led international forces from Afghanistan, and the transfer of responsibility to Ghani’s coalition in Kabul, raised the stakes for Afghanistan’s neighbours, especially Pakistan.

Pakistan’s all-weather friendship with China, informing South Asia’s geopolitical and strategic great gameoffered some respite. Xi Jinping’s aborted state visit notwithstanding, Sharif secured substantial Chinese economic help and diplomatic assurances during a trip to Beijing.

The undeclared, American-induced war Islamabad has waged since 2002 against Pakistan’s wayward sons and their foreign friends, especially operations in North Waziristan, a base for the 1980s-era CIA-sponsored covert anti-Soviet jihad, and now Islamist militancy’s mountain redoubt, claimed more blood and treasure. Pakistan’s struggle with Islamist militancy is far from over, as a horrifying mid-December assault on an Army-run school in Peshawar showed. The attack killed at least 145 people, mostly children. A series of spectacular militant attacks on state assets, against the backdrop of routine sectarian, ethnic, party political and criminal violence, shook confidence.

In June, gunmen raided the Karachi airport. Nearly two dozen people were killed while security forces battled in darkness to wrest control from the attackers. Three months later, infiltrators from al-Qaeda’s newly proclaimed subcontinental affiliate briefly hijacked a Pakistani frigate, the PNS Zulfiqar, in an abortive attempt to sink US warships in the Arabian Sea. In November, suicide bombers killed dozens and wounded more than a hundred spectators at the daily Indian-Pakistani borderguards’ flag-lowering ceremony at Wagah check-post.

As 2015 approaches, Islamabad is fighting many fires. Sharif must address popular dissatisfaction over alleged vote-rigging and corruption, and restore legitimacy necessary for essential political and economic reforms. He has to manage the fall-out from NATO/International Security Assistance Force draw-down in Afghanistan alongside domestic insecurity, without transferring excessive powers to the army. Projects financed by Chinese investment must be implemented without unraveling Pakistan–India relations. The state’s monopoly on force must be restored as the consequences of a single nuclear warhead falling into radical hands would be catastrophic.

Pakistan confronts many challenges in 2015. Resolving all of them simultaneously may prove impossible. Only by crafting a narrative of national purpose around which consensus can be forged will Pakistan start addressing the fundamental threats it faces.

This article originally appeared on the East Asia Forum blog as part of a special feature series on 2014 in review and the year ahead. It is reposted with the author’s permission.

Cover image credit: flickr/Utenriksdepartementet UD

About the Author

S. Mahmud Ali is East Asia International Affairs Programme Associate at LSE IDEAS. His India at LSE posts can be viewed here.

Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the India at LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. 

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