Can Pakistan sell a modified narrative to its people?
Addressing the inaugural Islamabad Security Dialogue in mid-March, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said: “Climate change, food security and economic vulnerability are among the most difficult obstacles to overcome in the world. insecurity in Pakistan. The safety of the ordinary citizen is one of the most important issues. There was talk of talks with India, but no criticism of Indian forces in Kashmir, which dominates all events in Pakistan.
Imran also spoke about regional connectivity and the benefits Pakistan could offer India. He said: “Without regional peace and improved trade ties with neighboring countries, Pakistan cannot capitalize on its geostrategic situation. He mentioned the opening of doors to connect India with Central Asia. It was Pakistan that blocked these roads, causing financial losses for itself. Opening the Port of Chabahar with planned links to Central Asia was a major challenge, which could make Pakistan’s road connectivity unimportant in case it continues on a similar path.
The head of the Pakistani army, General Bajwa, was not much different when he addressed the assembly the next day. He said: “We are faced with choices; whether to remain etched in the acrimony and toxicity of the past, continue to promote conflict and enter another vicious cycle of war, disease and destruction; or to move forward, bring the dividends of our technological and scientific advances to our people and usher in a new era of peace and prosperity. He added: “The main drivers of change in the world today are demographics, economics and technology. However, an issue that remains central to this concept is economic security and cooperation. He also discussed the Indo-Pak talks and the creation of an enabling environment for India.
Did Pakistan suddenly realize that there were bigger problems than Kashmir? The issues of economics and development, articulated by both, are not new; what is new is that after a long time Pakistani leaders have recognized this fact. Until the announcement of the cease-fire and the hopes of opening a dialogue, each speech, despite the occasion, concerned only India and Kashmir. It was never about the decline of the Pakistani economy, the inability to provide health care to its people and its collapse into the debt trap.
Over the years, the Pakistani economy continued to contract, the nation increasingly isolated due to its support for terrorism, even as the arms race with India continued, which contributed to the indebtedness of the nation. The additional pressure exerted by the FATF, pushed by India and the United States, to change Pakistan’s behavior, further reduced its ability to raise the funds necessary for development. Its army was supported by China to counter India. His own allies dumped him over economic ties with India, adding to Pakistan’s concerns. Yet instead of working to solve its problems, Pakistan’s government and military have focused solely on India and their jugular vein, Kashmir. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both Pakistani benefactors, have regularly warned him of his Kashmir obsession, but due to national constraints he has been ignored. Finally, in disgust, they began to demand repayment of the loans, adding to the economic pressure on the country.
The Pakistani military had started to believe its own lies that India would launch operations to regain POK and Gilgit Baltistan. He deployed large forces along the borders and spent scarce funds to procure weapons. He accused India of supporting insurgencies along its western borders where it has unleashed a spate of human rights violations, ignoring development and refusing to win hearts and minds. His brutality alienated him even further from his own population.
The Pakistani military ate a large chunk of the budget, controlled the country’s foreign policy, and ensured that its speech in defense of the country against Indian threats gave it the power to select and control governments. His false projection of the history of Partition and his twisted reporting of human rights abuses in Kashmir have helped to create anti-Indian sentiment and distract public attention from economic and development issues towards the enmity with India. The bubble must have burst at some point.
With the implementation of a 2003 ceasefire and the intention to project an environment of reduced hostility, Pakistan suddenly discovered major issues plaguing the nation. He also realized that he faces hostility from all his neighbors, be it India, Iran and Afghanistan. Therefore, the national leaders tried to fight the enmity with a neighbor, India. He is now forced to change his own internal narrative and project that India is not the threat it was claimed to be. However, he must keep the Kashmir issue alive, as abandoning it after decades of projection may not be accepted by his radical clerics.
Pakistan’s internal problems have remained the same for decades, only getting worse over time. However, they have been hidden from the public by injecting money obtained by borrowing from all possible sources and sometimes with high interest rates. At some point, these will need to be repaid. The CPEC that Pakistani leaders claim to be its savior is actually just another debt trap, because apart from China, no other country is using it for Pakistan to earn income.
The time for debt repayment is approaching. According to an article in The News Pakistan, the country’s total debt stood at Rs 42.9 trillion at the end of December 2020. It should only increase. Dawn, in a December 19 article titled “Heavily Indebted”, said: Debt Trap. In this situation, can he continue to spend money on defense while increasing hostility with India? For how long can he deceive his people by telling them that without Kashmir (which he can never claim) Pakistan is incomplete?
Realization has always existed; however, it is now being put into practice. Pakistani leadership started to make sense. The question is whether he will be able to convince his people, whom they have misled for decades, to accept this change.
The writer is a retired Indian Army major-general.