“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (the more things change, the more they remain the same)
— Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr
When Imran Ahmed Khan Niazi was sworn in as the 22nd Prime Minister of Pakistan in August 2018, he came in with a promise to usher in a ‘naya Pakistan’. The dream never materialised and four years later, in April 2022, with Niazi’s unceremonious ouster from the chair in a vote of no confidence, Pakistan was in a far more precarious position than what it was in 2018. The dream of a ‘naya Pakistan’ was stillborn and Pakistan remains, at least for the world’s democracies, a problem child, steeped in debt, obscurantism, religious bigotry and a cradle for fostering terrorism.
A volatile mix of religion, military control and internal strife has hampered the growth of a healthy democracy within the country. Pakistan’s current challenges are a mix of political instability, a tottering economy and ethnic and religious fissures. Much of this has to do with the circumstances of Pakistan’s birth, which was shrouded in an almost total lack of conceptual clarity. The coining of the word ‘PAKSTAN’ by Rahmat Ali is in itself instructive for it included in its vision the Provinces of Punjab, NWFP, Kashmir, Sind and Baluchistan but left out Bengal. Despite the aspect of territorial ambiguity, there was lack of ideological lucidity. Was it to be a secular state, a state of Muslims or an Islamic state? This lack of clarity still exists in Pakistan despite over seven decades of independence and is one of the reasons why Pakistan continues to teeter on the brink of disaster.
The World Bank’s Pakistan Development Update, released in April 2022, speaks of double digit inflation in the country caused by high demand pressures and rising global commodity prices, which have adversely impacted the Pakistani Rupee. More importantly, the report states that long-standing structural weaknesses of the economy including low investment, low exports and low productivity growth, pose risks to a sustained recovery. Tighter global financing conditions and a further rise in world energy prices will exacerbate the already high macroeconomic risks, these getting further compounded by the current political uncertainty and policy reform slippages. As per Zehra Aslam, the lead author of the above report, the “government would need to focus on containing the fiscal deficit at a level which ensures debt sustainability, closely coordinate fiscal and monetary policy, and retain exchange rate flexibility to mitigate immediate macroeconomic risks,” but that is easier said than done.
An economic crisis in Pakistan is not something new, the country having faced such a situation twice in the 1990s and a few times thereafter, but the magnitude this time is unprecedented. Besides other issues, Pakistan is faced with a severe debt crisis, with serious concerns about its ability to repay and service external debt. Pakistan’s external account is under pressure due to a spike in import prices, coupled with lax handling of domestic policy. Unlike 2018, this time Pakistan’s ability to deal with the crisis is severely challenged by political strife, internal security challenges as well as a volatile global situation caused by the war in Ukraine. Pakistan’s external debt repayments profile is very high, and its gross external financing requirement is estimated to be around nine per cent of GDP. While Pakistan has just about enough foreign exchange reserves to cater for two months of import requirements, it will have to depend on the generosity of the IMF and other lenders to keep its economy afloat. Inability to do so will cause Pakistan to slip further into an economic debt trap.
Pakistan remains mired in internal conflict, the origins of some of which stretch all the way back to the early years of independence. As stated by Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s leaders since the country’s inception have played upon religious sentiment as a nation building tool, and turned Pakistan into an ‘ideological state’ whose ideology is Islam. Zia’s policy of ‘Islamising’ Pakistan’s legal and educational system was merely an extension of a consistent state policy, though he went further down that road than his predecessors. The alliance between the mosque and the state, forged over decades, has had its pitfalls on two counts. Terrorist groups such as the TTP have sprung up, which seek imposing Sharia in Pakistan. These groups are at war against the Pakistani state. Then we have groups which were created to fight India such as the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) and the Lashkar-e Taiba. The State has not always been able to control them, as seen in the radical and violent manifestations of an Islamist ideology, which sometimes appear to threaten Pakistan’s stability.
In Balochistan, a freedom movement has been ongoing since 1948. The Baluch people are still engaged in a freedom struggle to rid them of the yoke of Pakistan, which continues to exploit their resources and offers little in return. The suicide bombing which took place at the Confucius Institute at Karachi University on 26 April 2022, is but a grim reminder of the desire of the Baloch people to attain freedom. The bombing killed the Director of the Institute, Mr Huang Guipin along with two other Chinese, Ding Mufang and Chen Jai. A fourth Chinese national, Wang Yuqing was seriously injured, along with a private security guard and two personnel from the Pakistan Rangers. Also killed was the driver of the van, a Pakistani national. The Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) claimed responsibility for the attack, which they stated was carried out by the Majeed Brigade of the BLA.
A statement released by the spokesperson of the group, Jeeyand Baloch, warned of many more attacks to come, the note in English stating: “Hundreds of highly trained male and female members of the Baloch Liberation Army’s Majeed Brigade are ready to carry out deadly attacks in any part of Balochistan and Pakistan.” This is the first case of a suicide bombing being carried out by a female bomber. More importantly, the bombing was not carried out on religious motivations, but on the grounds of achieving independence for the Baloch people. This will open up a whole range of new challenges for the Pakistani establishment, besides acting as a motivator for Baloch youth to continue with their quest for independence.
There is internal turmoil also in Gilgit-Baltistan, which too has been exploited by the Pakistani State at the expense of the local residents. To make matters worse, the Chinese have made great inroads in this area, through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which has added to the angst of the local population. While the China-Pakistan nexus at the political and military level is vibrant and strong, a similar level of connect at the people to people level is distinctly missing. Chinese investments in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (C-PEC) are viewed with distrust by the Baloch people who feel that their land in Gwadar has been bartered away. The BLA hence targets both the Pakistan government and Chinese nationals. The C-PEC is also viewed with distrust by the people of Gilgit Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which means that the entire corridor requires protection from sabotage by inimical groups.
Pakistan’s economy is in shambles and it is dealing with multiple internal security challenges. To make matters worse, there is lingering political instability in Pakistan, which inhibits effective decision making. The ouster of Imran Khan from power followed a script much akin to a Bollywood thriller, with desperate attempts being made by Khan to stick on to his chair, but the combined opposition finally outmanoeuvred him. The Army’s decision to stay neutral is widely viewed as support for Khan’s bête noire, Shehbaz Sharif.
Khan has since been holding massive political rallies across the country and has called for early elections. He retains popularity amongst a large section of the populace, particularly the youth, and believes that he will sweep the elections, as and when they are held, on the basis of the strong stance he has taken against the US.
Shehbaz Sharif, who took over as Premier after Khan’s ouster, is struggling to deal with a deteriorating economy, rising inflation and the devaluation of the rupee. He has had to take the unpopular decision to hike fuel prices, the price of petrol having increased by a whopping PKR 60 a few weeks back. This was necessitated to get an IMF loan to bail out the economy. As usual, the incumbent government blames Khan for mismanaging the economy, but the onus now is squarely on the present set of rulers to pull Pakistan out of the economic morass.
The stakes are high for the Pakistan military, which too will face a funds crunch, which will adversely impact its preparedness to deal with both internal and external threats. The core interest for the Pakistan military for the moment is internal stability, as an increase in political turmoil will more likely than not descend into political violence. With its current security commitments, and with the precarious state of Pakistan’s finances, this is not something which the military will look upon favourably. Despite the political turmoil, the military is unlikely to effect a takeover, as directly ruling the country will be far more problematic. A combination of the financial mess that Pakistan finds itself in, the volatile political environment and a wide-ranging set of security challenges will see Pakistan tottering on the verge of collapse. Western financial support may however prevent Pakistan from becoming a failed state.
Maj Gen Dhruv C. Katoch is an Army veteran who is currently Director, India Foundation.
 Saleem MM Qureshi, Pakistan: Islamic Ideology and the failed state? in Veena Kukreja and MP Singh (ed), Pakistan: Democracy, Development and Security Issues, (Sage Publications, New Delhi), pp 88, 89.
 Husain Haqqani, Dysfunction of an Ideological State: Pakistan’s Recurrent Crises in Historic Context