Over the course of 2016, Pakistan has achieved a certain degree of political stability. Political processes coped with multiple pressures and crises during the year. Democratic continuity means civilian governance is making incremental progress. Growth in civilian leadership is evident as political parties prepare for the general elections scheduled for 2018. Despite these trends, Pakistan continues to grapple with internal and external challenges to its peace and security. During the year, several notable issues involving political scandal, counterterrorism efforts, civil-military relations, and regional security stood-out, having a distinct impact on the domestic politics of Pakistan and its regional security.
Let us begin with the “Panama-gate” episode–the leaked documents of a Panamanian law firm that named the involvement of PM Sharif’s children and revealed their foreign assets–that has dominated the country’s political landscape. The “Panama papers” raised legal and ethical questions about the country’s political and business elite. The PML-N government and the opposition led by Imran Khan clashed repeatedly, leading the Supreme Court to intervene in order to break the political impasse. The beleaguered PML-N has acquiesced to public and institutional pressures to hold an inquiry. Legally, action regarding the Panama scandal has resulted in little progress, but its political impact has been significant for the PML-N. In 2017, this scandal will continue to generate political acrimony that only an authoritative judicial inquiry has the weight to address.
Pakistan continues to fight internal militancy and terrorism. The internal security situation improved vastly and 2016 was the most peaceful year since 2007. Hard data indicates that the number of fatalities in Pakistan due to terrorist attacks decreased from 3682 in 2015 to 1788 in 2016. These data on terrorist attacks in 2016 also depicted a new trend: high-causality attacks on value targets despite ongoing security operations across the country. North Wazirstan, the last remaining bastion of the Tehrikh-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has been almost cleared . Federal and provincial governments neglected implementation of National Action Plan (NAP). Much-desired political, governance, and legislative reforms in the insurgency-hit FATA-region remain unimplemented. For long-term stability in these areas, it is crucial that the federal government introduce quick reforms to address political and governance challenges there.
As a democracy in transition, Pakistan made incremental progress in civil-military relations. Despite uncertainty, timely transition in military command took place. General (R) Raheel Sharif, arguably the most popular Pakistani military commander in a generation, retired. PM Sharif appointed a new military chief at the end of November, General Qamar Bajwa, who has since assumed command. After twenty years, a military chief in Pakistan passed on the baton as mandated by the constitution. Both civilian and military enclaves are, finally, playing by the rules.
Meanwhile, civilian leadership and the military continue to hold different vision on future direction of counter-terrorism operations against militants in Punjab. Sectarian militant groups have sizeable presence in South Punjab and a few districts of Central Punjab. The federal government contends that civilian law-enforcement should move against these groups; while the military argues that since certain political parties are electorally allied with some of these militant groups, a hard-hitting security intervention is required. A leak to Dawn made public the civilian and military disagreement over the operation in Punjab and direction of country’s regional policy.
External Relations and Regional Security.
Afghanistan and India-related issues dominated Pakistani diplomatic affairs during 2016. The year commenced with prospects of progress in bilateral relations with Kabul and New Delhi after the fifth Heart of Asia Ministerial Meeting in Islamabad and PM Modi’s surprise visit to Lahore, both in December of 2015. Today, India-Pakistan relations are back to square one. The Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) started its work on a hopeful note, but after few preliminary talks it was upended by the sudden killing of the then Taliban leader, Mullah Mansoor, in a U.S. drone strike. Since then, Kabul and Islamabad have upped the ante against each other. Islamabad moved to implement a border-management regime and the repatriation of Afghan refugees. Meanwhile, Kabul moved ahead with getting access to military hardware from New Delhi.
In India, an attack on an air force base in Pathankot days after PM Modi’s visit to Lahore derailed the peace process. After giving unprecedented access to Pakistani investigators to the air base in India, no progress in the investigation has been made—or at least none publicly acknowledged. Since then, spy wars, cross-LoC firing, and events in Kashmir have overtaken the bilateral logjam.
A new wave of unrest led by Kashmiri youth has gripped Kashmir for months. The Government of India has responded with disproportionate force against protesting civilians. Meanwhile, cross-LoC firing continued. Tensions in Kashmir leave little space for bilateral political engagement between Islamabad and New Delhi. In fact, 2016, has been the year when bilateral communications came to naught. In April, Pakistan announced suspension of dialogue with India. Regular cross-LoC firing left a 13-yearlong ceasefire agreement with India in tatters, as both sides edged on in dangerous escalation. Dangerous military actions were taken in the absence of any political and diplomatic engagement.
Aside from these, the visit of Iranian President, Dr. Hassan Rouhani, to Pakistan was a significant development. It came at a delicate time as international sanctions on Iran were just lifted and relations between Tehran and Ridyah had deteriorated. Islamabad’s longstanding relationship with Saudi Arabia necessarily complicates relations between Islamabad and Tehran. Pakistan is looking to expand economic and energy linkages, while Iran seeks political convergence on regional security issues. Avenues for broadening bilateral relationship exist, most notably completion of Iran-Pakistan gas-pipeline, but mutual distrust continues to hamper development of ties.
With domestic political stability setting in, Pakistan may now face political and security challenges without fears of widespread disorder breaking out. Political parties are gearing up for the nation-wide elections scheduled for 2018. After the summer of 2017, the country will move into political campaign mode. Regardless of the legal outcome of the Panama cases, the impact of the leaks will reverberate throughout the coming year, particularly during election season. Meanwhile, political and security-related developments will continue to perplex the civilian government and the military command. The future course of Pakistan’s relations with regional countries depends largely on the outcome of internal security operations in 2017. The way in which Pakistan addresses the challenge of militancy will also set the direction for its regional policy. Today, Pakistan is better positioned than in the recent past to face both old and new challenges.