Addressing the inaugural Islamabad Security dialogue in mid- March, Pakistan PM Imran Khan stated, “Climate change, food security and economic vulnerability are some of the most challenging impediments to overcoming insecurity across Pakistan. Security of the common citizen is one of the most important issues.” There was a mention of talks with India, however no criticism of Indian forces in Kashmir, which is something that dominates every event in Pakistan.
Imran also spoke about regional connectivity and benefits which Pakistan could provide India. He stated, “Without regional peace and improved trade ties with neighbouring countries, Pakistan cannot capitalise on its geostrategic location.” He mentioned opening doors for linking India to Central Asia. It was Pakistan which blocked these routes, resulting in financial losses to itself. The opening of Chabahar port with planned linkages to Central Asia was a major challenge, which could make Pakistan’s road connectivity irrelevant in case it continued on a similar path.
Pakistan Army Chief, General Bajwa was not much different when he addressed the gathering the next day. He stated, “we face choices; whether to stay etched in the acrimony and toxicity of the past, continue promoting conflict and get into another vicious cycle of war, disease and destruction; or to move ahead, bring the dividends of our technological and scientific advancements to our people and usher in a new era of peace and prosperity.” He added, “today the leading drivers of change in the world are demography, economy and technology. However, one issue which remains central to this concept is economic security and cooperation.” He also discussed Indo- Pak talks and creation of a conducive environment by India.
Did Pakistan suddenly realise that there are more important issues than Kashmir? The issues of economy and development, stated by both are nothing new; what is new is that after a long time, the leadership of Pakistan has acknowledged this fact. Till the announcement of the ceasefire and hopes for commencement of a dialogue, every speech, despite the occasion, only involved India and Kashmir. There was never a mention of the declining Pakistani economy, the inability to provide health care to its people and its sinking into a debt trap.
Over the years the Pakistan economy has continued shrinking, the nation increasingly isolated on account of its support to terrorism, even as the arms race with India continued, all of which accounted for the nation moving deeper into debt. Added pressure by the FATF, pushed by India and the US, to change Pakistan’s behaviour, further curtailed its ability to garner funds needed for development. Its military was supported by China as a counter to India. Its own allies dumped it for economic ties with India, adding to Pakistan’s concerns. Yet, instead of working to resolve its problems, the government of Pakistan and the army focussed only on India and their jugular vein, Kashmir. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both Pakistani benefactors, regularly warned it about its Kashmir obsession, but due to domestic compulsions, it was ignored. Finally, as a sign of disgust, they began demanding repayment of loans, adding to economic pressure on the country.
The Pakistan army had begun believing its own lies that India would launch operations to regain POK and Gilgit Baltistan. It deployed large forces along the borders and spent scarce funds to procure weapons. It accused India of supporting insurgencies along its western borders where it went on a rampage of human rights violations, ignoring development and refusing to win hearts and minds. Its brutality alienated it further from its own population.
The Pakistan army ate a large part of the budget, controlled the nation’s foreign policy and ensured that its narrative of defending the country against Indian threats gave it the power to select and control governments. Its fake projection of partition history and twisted reports on human rights violations in Kashmir helped build an anti-India sentiment and diverted public attention from economic woes and development to enmity with India. The bubble had to burst at some stage.
With the implementation of a 2003 ceasefire and an intention of projecting an environment of reduced hostility, Pakistan has suddenly discovered major problems which plague the nation. It has also realised that it faces hostility with every neighbour, be it India, Iran and Afghanistan. Hence, the national leadership has attempted to tackle enmity with one neighbour, India. It is now being compelled to change its own internal narrative and project that India is not the threat which it was claimed to be. However, it has to keep the Kashmir issue alive as dropping it after decades of projection may not be accepted by its radical clerics.
Pakistan’s internal problems have remained the same for decades, only worsening over time. However, they have been hidden from the public by pushing in money obtained by borrowing from every possible source and on occasions with high interest rates. At some time, these would need to be repaid. The CPEC which the Pakistani leadership claims is its saviour is in reality nothing but another debt trap, as other than China no other nation utilizes it for Pakistan to earn revenue.
The time for repayment of debt is now nearing. As per a report in The News Pakistan, the country’s total debt stood at Rs 42.9 trillion at the end of December 2020. It is only expected to rise. Dawn in an article, titled, “Heavily in debt” on 19 December stated, “The fact that Pakistan’s external debt continues to accumulate, and it has to borrow more dollars to repay its old loans suggests that the country has actually been caught in a debt trap.” In this situation can it continue spending money on defence while enhancing hostility with India? For how long can it fool its people that without Kashmir (which it can never claim) Pakistan is incomplete?
The realisation always existed; however, now it is being put into practice. Sense has begun to dawn on the Pakistani leadership. The question is, will it be able to convince its people, who it has been misleading for decades, to accept this change.
The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.