The other strategic threat

AS the news cycle shifts to the situation in Afghanistan and the dwindling prospects of a negotiated settlement, the political wheel of fortune in Pakistan appears fading into the background. The noise from the background — echoing in the hills and mountains of Azad Kashmir — is however promising another round of instability after Eid.

This instability is generating a certain strategic angst within power circles. At a time of great regional upheaval, and of weighty decisions that will have consequences for years ahead, Pakistan’s volatile political climate and the mutual loathing that it is generating, is deemed highly unsuitable for the times. In other words, the lack of a functional working relationship between the government and the opposition has begun to be perceived as a major obstacle for strategic policymaking that requires a buy-in from all stakeholders.

The system is about to extract the price of being broken.

The campaign for the Azad Kashmir elections has reopened political wounds. By choosing the likes of ministers Ali Amin Gandapur and Murad Saeed to lead the campaign, the PTI has decided to go the dirty and personal route. Both have not disappointed. In return, the PML-N and the PPP have also scaled up their response and now almost all the campaign discourse is embellished with words like ‘traitor’, ‘thief’, ‘sellout’ and ‘Modi’s yaar’.

The spillover into parliament — while not surprising — is worrisome all the same. The slanging matches in the Senate in response to the incendiary rhetoric on the AJK campaign trail have crowded out debate on substantive matters that are unfolding across the borders. The briefing on Afghanistan to the parliamentary leadership by the military leadership seems to have had a temporary effect that now is being washed away by the deluge of political loathing.

This need not have been so. Committee meetings in recent days have seen good solid and informed discussion on strategic matters. Army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, DG ISI Lt Gen Faiz Hameed as well as Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and National Security Adviser Dr Moeed Yusuf have conducted thorough briefings on Afghanistan and other strategic matters at various forums and answered questions from committee members. At the Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting, chaired by PPP’s Sherry Rehman, there was a testy exchange between her and the foreign minister igniting a few partisan sparks, but by and large the members of the opposition were attentive and responsive to the foreign minister and the NSA. There was no real partisan division on the issue under discussion. A similar environment had prevailed in the meeting of the parliamentary committee on national security.

Beyond these sessions however, it is back to the normal state of mutual hostility. This hostility is now extracting a price. Two upcoming events will illustrate the scale of the price. On July 26, two of the four members of the Election Commission of Pakistan are due to retire. The ECP decision-making is invested in the chairman and the four members, one from each province. After completing their five-year term, retired justice Altaf Ibrahim from Punjab and retired justice Irshad Qaisar from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will relinquish their posts. Their replacements should ideally have already been in place. They are not. In fact, the process to start selecting the new members has not even started. With these two vacancies unfilled, the ECP will still be able to make decisions but if for some reason one of the three remaining decision-makers is not available, constitutional issues will prop up.

The new ECP members have to be appointed through meaningful consultation between the prime minister and the Leader of the opposition. The abse­nce of an operational working relationship, and the heightened level of hostility, means such a consultation between the two gentlemen in question appears highly unlikely. It is hard to visualise Prime Minister Imran Khan inviting Leader of the Opposition Shehbaz Sharif to his office for a cup of tea and ‘meaningful’ consultation which can lead to a consensus on the names of the new ECP members. The system is about to extract the price of being broken.

There’s more. The four-year tenure of Chairman NAB retired justice Javed Iqbal ends in October this year. It is the most important appointment at this stage given the role that NAB is playing in present times. This key decision also requires a meaningful consultation between the prime minister and the leader of the opposition. How the PM deals with the immediate issue of the appointment of the members of the ECP will give us a clear idea of what will happen three months down the line when the NAB chairman vacates his office. We are staring into a completely avoidable constitutional void just because personal dislike has overwhelmed the business of the state.

Murmurings about the appointment of the chairman NAB have already started in the federal capital. Government circles suggest that they may not be averse to considering a reappointment of the incumbent, while the opposition is categorical in saying they will never agree to it. The issue is simmering in the background and may come to a boil soon.

The larger point, however, is how to sustain the working of the state under the overhang of this hostility. The situation in Afghanistan and its possible impact on Pakistan is a reminder of the need for collective leadership at the time of strategic challenges. But when the government and the opposition cannot even fulfil the basic requirements of their mandate because the PM and the leader of the opposition cannot sit across a table, then cooperation on larger issues appears extremely improbable.

As the present set-up prepares to complete its third year in a few weeks, sane minds may need to reflect on how to graduate to a state of sustainable normalcy in the coming years. With the elections due in two years, and the rigours of the campaign shimmering on the horizon, the hostility will only worsen. As we grapple with weighty matters abroad, the great strategic imbalance at home may overwhelm us all.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.

Twitter: @fahdhusain

Published in Dawn, July 17th, 2021


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