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FILE: Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa meeting Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad, November 26, 2016.

Pakistan seems on track in 2017 for another year of just getting by. The country seems likely as in the recent past to avoid fully confronting its most challenging problems yet managing to do enough to avoid their becoming seriously worse.

Measures to curb domestic violence undertaken by Pakistan’s military and civilian government can be expected to fall short of making the hard choices needed to eliminate ensconced extremist groups.

The military’s campaign in the FATA and paramilitary actions in Karachi and elsewhere in conjunction with the country’s National Action Plan (NAP) are given credit for lowering the number of terrorist attacks nationwide. Even so, the intelligence coordination envisioned by NAP has not been achieved and the high incidence of deadly high-profile attacks in 2016 may well continue in 2017.

Also lacking is the political will among Pakistan’s leaders to target those violent jihadi groups like Lashkar-e Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, which along with the Afghan Taliban continue to be treated as strategic assets in Pakistan’s security calculus involving Kashmir and Afghanistan.

Indications are that Pakistan’s policymakers will do little in 2017 to address the structural weaknesses in a sluggish economy. Declining direct private investment and weakening balance of payments are unlikely to be reversed this year, and the country’s heavy debt burden will continue to grow.

But Pakistan is not expected to face economic crisis or pay a price politically for inaction. Low oil and gas prices and strengthened currency reserves have taken pressure off the government to confront such difficult issues as tax reform and inequality.

Public discontent, so visible in recent years over shortages in electricity, has been lessened by the country’s increasing megawatt capacity. Above all, the popular euphoria over the agreement with China that promises more than $50 billion to construct an economic corridor uplifting the country’s transit and energy infrastructure has created the popular impression that Pakistan will be eventually relieved of all its economic ills.

Politically, most predictions foresee a year of greater political stability. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s overseas financial holding, as revealed by the Panama Papers, will continue to plague him for some months as will efforts of opposition parties to weaken and delegitimize his leadership. Yet Sharif will probably continue to outmaneuver his political enemies and be buttressed by popular approval of his government’s development projects.

Imran Khan’s movement shows signs of running out of steam, and its longtime rival, the People’s Party, has not regained its footing as a national party.

Sharif’s Muslim League stands a good chance of being returned to power in the event early national elections are called in 2017.

A modus vivendi seems to be largely in place between Pakistan’s civilian leaders and its military. Despite the generals’ disdain for Sharif and much of the political class, the military appears content with a status quo in which its domain of foreign and defense policy remains secure and it can avoid the responsibilities that come with assuming the powers of government.

In this often delicately balanced relationship, the Sharif government has acquired a newfound confidence. Its successful management of a new army chief’s selection in November has probably gained the Sharif regime a better hearing from the military and greater assurance that the ruling party will be allowed to serve out its term in office.

The government’s hand has also been strengthened as it has assumed the lead role in negotiating the direction of Chinese economic investment in Pakistan.

The year 2017 will not mark progress in expanding human and civil rights or legislation curbing corruption. More problematic still is the future of a blasphemy law.

However, closure should finally be achieved in long-overdue integration politically and administratively of Pakistan’s tribal areas with the rest of the country. In all probability, the seven tribal agencies of FATA will be consolidated within Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. Less certain is whether the Pakistani Taliban, which found refuge from the army’s Zarb-e Azb campaign across the border in Afghanistan, will begin to seep back into North Waziristan.

For the time being at least, barbed rhetorical exchanges and periodic border clashes are likely to mark relations between Pakistan and India. Although both nuclear-capable powers seek to avoid deeper conflict, another major terrorist attack inside India could, however, end the restraint heretofore shown by the Modi government.

Pakistan’s suspicions of Indian activities in Afghanistan may increase further in 2017 should Taliban military gains force the Kabul government to lean heavily on India for meeting its security needs.

The optimism expressed in Pakistan that a new U.S. administration may be more understanding of the country’s policies will probably fade quickly. Under a Trump administration, the long-lasting U.S. alliance with Pakistan can be expected to become more transparently transactional and carry more sticks than carrots.

Marvin Weinbaum is a scholar in residence and director of the Pakistan Studies Center at the Middle East Institute think tank in Washington. These views are the author's alone and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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Pakistani human rights activists hold images of some of the bloggers who have gone missing during a protest in Islamabad on January 10.

As protests and condemnations over the disappearances of liberal activists in Pakistan grow, a fifth campaigner has gone missing from a southern provincial capital.

Colleagues of Pakistani activist Samar Abbas say he is missing under unknown circumstances.

The Civil Progressive Alliance, which Abbas heads, said on January 12 that Abbas disappeared in the port city of Karachi on January 7.

Talib Raza of the Civil Progressive Alliance said Abbas's disappearance seemed to be part of "an organized attempt to shut down the progressive and liberal voices in the country."

Abbas's disappearance comes amid a spate of similar incidents in which four liberal bloggers were reported missing in several different cities between January 4 and January 7.

Pakistani media reported that social media activists Waqas Goraya and Asim Saeed disappeared from Lahore, a city in eastern Pakistan on January 4. Salman Haider, an academic and blogger, was apparently abducted from a busy highway in the capital, Islamabad, on January 6. The next day, Ahmed Raza Naseer disappeared from Sheikhupura near Lahore, capital of eastern Punjab Province.

Global rights watchdogs Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have condemned the disappearances.

A January 11 statement by Amnesty International said the four activists “have gone missing in a suspected enforced disappearance by state security forces in Pakistan.”

Amnesty International linked the disappearances to the activists’ views and work. “The activists are known for their social media activism and for expressing their views on human rights issues and state policies,” the statement said.

A January 10 statement by Human Rights Watch noted the activists were “vocal critics of militant religious groups and Pakistan’s military establishment, and used the Internet to disseminate their views.”

The statement noted that the “near simultaneous disappearance” and authorities moving to shut down their websites and blogs has raised grave concerns over official involvement.

“The Pakistani government has an immediate obligation to locate the four missing human rights activists and act to ensure their safety,” said the organization’s Asia director, Brad Adams. “The nature of these apparent abductions puts the Nawaz Sharif government on notice that it can either be part of the solution or it will be held responsible for its role in the problem.”

Pakistani Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan told the parliament on January 10 that authorities are investigating the cases. “We are moving in the right direction and will recover all the four missing activists in light of the ongoing investigation,” he told the Senate, the upper house of Pakistani Parliament.

On January 9, five lawmakers from the secular Pakistan People's Party (PPP) raised the issue in the parliament. "The pattern of these disappearances suggests it is a planned and coordinated action undertaken to silence voices which are critical of prevalent sociopolitical issues in Pakistan," they said in a statement to the parliament speaker.

The United Nations has expressed concern over the disappearances.

"No government should tolerate attacks on its citizens," David Kaye, the UN's special rapporteur on freedom of expression, was quoted as saying.

In scores of sizeable demonstrations across Pakistan, civil society activists and politicians have condemned the disappearances and urged Islamabad to ensure freedom of speech and expression.

Rights campaigners say Pakistan’s powerful security agencies have a long history of threatening critics, dissidents, and separatists. Pakistani and international rights watchdogs have documented hundreds of cases of torture, enforced disappearances, and killings of campaigners, journalists, and members and leaders of groups perceived to be anti-state.

Hard-line Islamist groups such as the Taliban, armed separatists, and conservative political groups frequently threaten and target journalists and activists.

Based on reporting by AP, AFP, and Express Tribune

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