Pakistan’s Multilayered Crises 

By Saifullah Chaudhry

Pakistan’s strategic importance is not new: while it gained new momentum following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the country has regularly surfaced in the news over the past decades, due to cycles of political instability and geopolitical specificities. Pakistan is indeed at the crossroads between several issues that include the Kashmir, evolutions in Afghanistan, the US projection in the sub-region, nuclear perspectives, environmental disasters and terrorist-related issues, among many others. 

Recently, Pakistan witnessed new developments following a failed assassination attempt against former Prime Minister Imran Khan. What can we expect then in the foreseeable future?  

To better understand the ongoing situation, the OCC sat down with Saifullah Chaudhry, a Pakistani researcher, based in Toronto. 

Pakistan has continual tensions and crises. How would you describe and prioritize the type of crises that the country is going through?  

Presently, Pakistan is caught between a devil and a deep sea. 2022 saw Pakistan plunge into a political crisis followed by an economic crisis already bubbling under. Things became further complicated by the massive floods that Pakistan witnessed during monsoon season, and more recently the rise in terrorist attacks in Pakistan. The political crisis has deepened over recent years with the rise of a new political party, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI), led by ex-cricketer and philanthropist turned-politician, Imran Khan. He accused almost all political parties of committing corruption and, in 2018, won the election to become prime Minister of Pakistan, while other parties accused him of winning the election through the support of Pakistan’s powerful military establishment. The present political schism has brought the old political guards – comprising almost all major political, religious, and nationalistic forces – on one platform, now called Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM). It successfully toppled the government of Imran Khan on 9th April 2022. PTI blamed Pakistan’s powerful military establishment for puppeteering the political manoeuvrer leading to their ouster from power. All PTI members of the national assembly tendered their resignation in protest barring a few dissidents. In the last eight months, the PTI has been demanding a new early general election, which is scheduled to be held after August 2023. In December 2022, PTI, in a bid to force the federal government of PDM to call for an early general election, announced to dissolve provincial assemblies in the two provinces of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where it has the government – both these provinces constitute the 66% of Pakistan’s population. However, the dissolution seems to have been delayed due to push back by PTI’s political ally in Punjab province, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, who is also the chief minister.  

The political crisis has brought a difficult financial situation for the country. The change in federal government brought uncontrollable inflation caused by the sharp increase in fuel prices and decline in export and remittances from  Pakistanis overseas. In January 2023, Pakistan State Bank announced its foreign exchange reserves had reduced to around US $5.5 billion, its lowest level in over eight years. The financial situation has only worsened due to mega floods in the summer, the Ukraine war, and global food prices. The flood’s impact has been severe across the four provinces, particularly in the Southern provinces of Sindh and Balochistan, killing 2,000 people, submerging about 12% of the country’s land mass, destroying and damaging about 2.3 million houses, and killing 1.2 million livestock. Pakistan’s economic woes have become very complicated as it must pay nearly US $33 billion to its foreign lenders in the coming financial year. Pakistan is negotiating with friendly countries to obtain $3 billion in handouts. At the same time, an International Monetary Fund (IMF) review for releasing a bailout package for $7 billion has been pending since September.  

Pakistan now seems to have a new economic lifeline and breathing space, as donors have committed more than US $10 billion at the UN and Pakistan’s jointly hosted ‘International Conference on Climate Resilient Pakistan’ on January 9-10, 2023. Pakistan has also requested the IMF pause its demands for economic reforms before releasing more financial aid, as the country tries to rebuild after the catastrophic floods. 

As of late 2022, Pakistan’s law enforcement agencies are now managing the sudden rise of terrorist attacks. The banned Tehreek-I-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has claimed the responsibility of more than 100 attacks in Pakistan. Recently, Islamabad has asked Afghanistan to ban Pakistani terrorist groups from its soil for launching attacks in Pakistan. The law enforcement agencies have started a concerted campaign to root out terrorist network groups operating primarily in the areas bordering Afghanistan.  

There was an apparent attempt in early November to assassinate former PM, Imran Khan. What happened, and can this substantially impact the political scene?  

Soon after the ouster of PTI from the federal government, its leader and erstwhile Prime minister, Imran Khan, blamed the powerful military establishment of collusion with the Pakistan Democratic Movement for his government downfall. In addition, he has also pointed fingers at the US for demanding his ouster through a diplomatic channel – an allegation the US spokesperson has denied repeatedly. Imran Khan’s political narrative around his removal from power and accusing the present government of the Pakistan Democratic Movement of massive corruption has resonated well among the masses. It has resulted in his political party’s victories in several by-elections held in different parts of the country during October 2022. Subsequently, Imran Khan led a political rally to swarm the Federal Capital during the last week of November 2022 to demand fresh general elections. During the political rally, there was an assassination attempt on Imran Khan, who was on top of a truck leading the rally. Bullets were randomly fired upon, injuring several people on top of the truck including Imran Khan. Video footage later showed a party supporter captured one of the shooters while he was brandishing his gun and trying to escape the scene. Afterwards, Imran Khan said he could not register his police report as he blamed the senior office holder in the present government for this assassination attempt. The Supreme court intervened and required the police to register the case. The police did so without mentioning any names. 

A new army chief was appointed at the end of November, and we know that the army is a key part in the country’s politics. What can we understand from this move? 

The appointment of Pakistan’s new army chief has been much under the media focus and part of political discourse. Nonetheless, the change of the guard of the Pakistan army chief in November has gone by the book, and the Prime Minister selected the senior most general among the six nominees that the military establishment sent for the government’s consideration. The outgoing army chief in his farewell speech has categorically stated that the army after great deliberation, “decided that it would never interfere in any political matter”. Whether Pakistan’s military will remain apolitical or not, only the future will tell.  

From a broader perspective, Pakistan, a traditional ally of the US, has had tensions lately with Washington. What are the reasons, and do you think they will be overcome easily? 

Historically, US-Pakistan relations have centered around US military interests, whether focused on the Soviets or, more recently, curtailing Al-Qaida and Taliban.  The US has been a significant supplier of military aid to Pakistan, a donor and trade partner. Pakistan remained a close US ally throughout the 1950s and 1960s against communism, during the 1980s as a front-line state to confront the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, and in post-9/11, as a partner in fighting Al-Qaida-led terrorism and the Taliban. But the US has accused Pakistan of playing a double game while fighting Al-Qaida and the Taliban in the past, describing it as running with deer and hunting with wolves. Recently, the Biden administration in the US has kept a cold shoulder towards Pakistan during the PTI government led by Imran Khan. During the infamous departure of US forces from Afghanistan in August 2021, the US Administration did not interact with Pakistan’s government. Now, with the change in the federal government, Pakistan is making efforts to rebuild its relations with the US administration. The recent rise in terrorist attacks in Pakistan, after Tehreek-i-Pakistan (TTP) abandoned it ceasefire and carried out more than 100 attacks across the country, prompted the Pakistan defense ministry to point fingers at Afghanistan for allowing its soil to be used for terrorist’s attack on Pakistan. Pakistan’s high level national Security Committee after two days of deliberation has demanded Afghanistan to deny safe havens to Pakistani terrorist groups. The Afghanistan government has denied any involvement. The US has thrown its weight behind the counter-terrorism decisions taken by the Pakistan National Security Committee (NSC) in its recent meeting, saying “Pakistan has a right to defend itself from terrorism”.  

Finally, it appears that the rise of terrorism emanating from Afghanistan may further warm up the relations between US and Pakistan.  

To quote this article or video, please use the following reference:  OCC (2022), “On Pakistan’s Multilayered Crises”

The OCC publishes a wide range of opinions that are meant to help our readers think of International Relations. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and neither the OCC nor Saint Louis University can be held responsible for any use which may be made of the opinion of the author and/or the information contained therein.