Pakistan’s New Government: Rapidly losing credibility
The new Pakistani Government headed by Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) leader Imran Khan has displayed an acute lack of astuteness in its first few months, whether that be in the realm of domestic matters, overseas affairs, or the country’s precariously placed economy. Conflicting statements made and positions taken by highly placed government functionaries have not only triggered confusion and distrust over the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), on which the country has perilously staked its entire economic future, but also made a mockery of the future of millions of Afghan and ‘Bengali’ refugees living for decades in the country. To add to the perplexity, the Government has resorted to harebrained schemes such as auctioning of government-owned buffaloes and cars to shore up the economy and relying on donations from Pakistanis living abroad to build dams estimated to cost tens of billions of dollars. Add to this a profound ignorance of statecraft and susceptibility to pressures, both internal and external, and the picture that emerges is neither flattering nor confidence-inspiring.
Abdul Razak Dawood, adviser to the Pakistani Prime Minister on commerce, textile, industry, and investment, in an interview with the ‘Financial Times’ on 10 September (just after Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Pakistan) informed that Pakistan would revisit the CPEC agreement negotiated with China by the previous Nawaz Sharif-led Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government and that the CPEC operation would be put on hold for a year or two. During this period its terms and conditions would be renegotiated. The PTI has for quite some time now been alleging corruption and ineptitude by the previous PML-N government in agreeing upon unequal terms and conditions for the CPEC. Finance Minister Asad Umar stated last month that the “opaque terms” of the agreements would be laid before Parliament as they did not contain confidential information. PTI leaders have also accused the former PML-N government and its Chinese interlocutors of being slip-shod in concluding the agreements indiscreetly without deliberating on their viability and cost-effectiveness. PTI Senator Nauman Wazir said: “90% of the load carried on the 2,700km long Gwadar-Kashgar Motorway will be Chinese cargo goods, while Pakistan will derive no direct benefit from this huge infrastructure project”. He added that the former government had agreed to Chinese loans at 20-23% interest, along with an insurance cost for the project, but the revenue generated from the project was not quantified in any of the documents. He lamented that a ten-year projection of cash-flow from the project was indispensable to enable evaluation on whether the revenue from it would meet its cost, but this assessment was nowhere on record. Another PTI Senator Mohsin Aziz said that “we will revisit the whole spectrum of the CPEC to make certain that the terms on which it was negotiated do not harm the interest of the country”.
PML-N leaders, meanwhile, ridiculed the new government’s skepticism about the CPEC and expressed concern about the beating Pakistan’s already emaciated credibility would take if the agreement is not followed through. PML-N’s former finance minister Miftah Ismail said, “But if we annul agreements, what sanctity of the Pakistan government would remain? That would be a hit on Pakistan’s sovereign guarantee and hurt the credibility of the government of Pakistan”.
The issues pertaining to the CPEC highlighted by the PTI leadership are indeed relevant and merit serious consideration given the general perception in Pakistan that the Corridor is geared to benefit only China and Chinese companies involved in the project while encumbering Pakistan with a bulging debt burden that would upset the country’s balance of payments. The experience of other Asian countries, including Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been unsatisfactory. They have woken up to the fact that the terms and conditions in projects under the scheme are exploitative. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad visited China last month to discuss Malaysia’s withdrawal from $23 billion worth of BRI infrastructure projects including the East Coast Rail Link and the Trans-Sabah Gas Pipeline as his country could not afford the loans agreed to by his predecessor.
The PTI bravado, however, did not adequately factor in who the main Pakistani beneficiaries of the CPEC were. The reprimand from the military establishment, shaken by the inexperience in realpolitik of the new PTI government, was prompt and sharp. Abdul Razak Dawood quickly proffered the time-tested albeit stale alibi of having been quoted out of context in the interview, and Pakistan Army Chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa rushed off on a three-day visit to Beijing on 17 September to smooth the ruffled feathers there and contain the damage. He assured Chinese President Xi Jinping that the BRI with CPEC as its flagship is destined to succeed despite all odds, and that the Pakistan Army would ensure security of CPEC at all costs. That the Army Chief continues to remain the primary interface with countries such as China that are critical to Pakistan is also highly revealing about the standing of the PTI government vis-à-vis the military establishment.
Another recent incident that has starkly shown up the continuing dominance of the military establishment over the new government as well as the unreliability of the PTI leadership even while dealing with the lives and future of millions of human beings was the oscillating position of Imran Khan on the issue of granting citizenship to Afghan and ‘Bengali’ refugees. In a surprise announcement at a fund-raising dinner for the Diamer-Bhasha Dam on 16 September in Karachi, Khan pledged that his government would grant citizenship to all Afghan and ‘Bengali’ refugees born in the country. Pakistan has over 1.39 million UNHCR-registered Afghan refugees and more than 250,000 ethnic ‘Bengali’ refugees. In addition, it is estimated that there are well over another million Afghan refugees that have not been registered. UN surveys suggest that around 60% of Afghan refugees were either born in Pakistan or were minors when their parents migrated to Pakistan.
Khan’s move was welcomed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and by human rights activists. UNHCR spokesperson Dan McNorton said that "UNHCR welcomes the statement on Afghan children born in Pakistan. We look forward to working closely with the government of Pakistan on this issue in the coming weeks". Saroop Ijaz, a representative for Human Rights Watch (HRW), opined that "granting citizenship to those eligible seems to be a logical next step both legally and morally". Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington DC-based Wilson Center, felt that "Bengali and Afghan refugees have suffered from discrimination in Pakistan for years, and granting citizenship to them would mark a major reversal in policy and give them a semblance of dignity that has long been denied to them". Noor Hussain Arkani, a leader of the Bengali and Burmese community in Karachi, welcomed Khan's announcement. He said, “The entire community is thrilled at the announcement. Our community has suffered a long time due to state neglect and discrimination. We have taken this up at every forum in this country. I used to frequently speak to local and foreign media in order to highlight our plight and draw the attention of government". Afghan journalist Sami Yousufzai opined that “in Europe the illegal refugees were granted citizenship through asylum. And such facilities should be extended by Pakistan to Afghan refugees, which share culture, language and customs with their Pakistani brothers”.
Yousufzai, however, felt that the prospects of success of Khan’s move depended squarely on whether it had the backing of the military establishment, which has so far been avoiding issue of security clearances to those refugees who had been applying for citizenship under Pakistani law. Kugelman too was of the view that "if the military opposed this move, then this issue could represent an early test for civil-military relations in the Imran Khan era". The establishment has been a strong proponent for repatriation of Afghan refugees, often blaming them for terrorist attacks in Pakistan. Since the 2014 terrorist attack on an army school in Peshawar, the military establishment has been actively encouraging the repatriation of Afghan refugees. HRW reported that in 2016, a military crackdown and threats of deportation coerced over 600,000 Afghans to face danger and destitution back in Afghanistan. Madiha Afzal, a Brookings Institute fellow, described the situation aptly, "Over the last few years, there has really been a targeted campaign to make Afghan refugees feel insecure in Pakistan – by the State, repeatedly saying their proof of registration cards will expire, only to extend them at the last minute, to the propagation of a narrative that Afghan refugees have been a cause of Pakistan's economic and security problem”.
Khan’s announced move would also have been a major reversal of Pakistan's stance over the years of insisting that the country has shouldered the burden of Afghan refugees for too long and that they should be sent home. In fact, just one day prior to Khan’s announcement his foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi visited Afghanistan where he discussed the fate of the registered Afghan refugees who have till 31 December 2018 to stay in Pakistan legally. An official statement issued after Qureshi's trip to Kabul said that in his meetings with Afghan leaders, the Foreign Minister "underlined the need for dignified, sustainable repatriation of Afghan refugees to their homeland through a gradual and time-bound plan".
Given Khan’s proclivity to retract his pledges and positions as evidenced recently in the dismissal of his advisor Atif Mian, a renowned economist, under pressure from Islamists who objected to his Ahmadi faith, Khan limply and swiftly also backtracked from his promise of citizenship to the refugees when he was confronted on the matter on 18 September in the National Assembly by allied parties and opponents alike. The real pressure that compelled Khan to cut a sorry figure, however, came from the establishment which forced Khan to state on the floor of the Assembly that he had raised the refugee citizenship issue “just to initiate a debate” and that no final decision had been taken on the matter.
Khan’s retraction of his publicly made promise to the refugees has caused great consternation in their ranks. Hajji Abdullah Shah, head of the Afghan refugees in Sindh, reflected this concern when he told the media, “We hope he will not take the light he has shown to us back”. Through his abnegation Khan not only focused the spotlight on his political inexperience and immaturity, but more pointedly on his lack of sensitivity and seriousness towards a humanitarian cause that affects the lives of millions of refugees that are already living in deplorable conditions and facing ill-treatment and discrimination on a daily basis.
Pakistan’s stock in the wider world is at an all-time low. The steady stream of volte-faces and backpedaling on serious issues as well as the constant succumbing to pressure that the new government has been guilty of in just the few weeks that it has been in power has the potential to sap the country of the remaining little credibility it has left as a State.