Strange though it might seem there has always been a larger than life image of Pakistan in the minds of many Indians despite all evidence to the contrary. The reasons are not far to see and could as well be Pakistan’s possession of Nuclear weapons, involvement in terrorist activities in Kashmir and now in Afghanistan after US withdrawal in last August and common obsession with cricket , love for Urdu poetry and Qawali music which don’t however explain lack of serious interest in Pakistan’s economy and society in the Indian media. This could be partly due to our inward looking attitude and general lack of interest in what is happening in our neighborhood as we tend to look at the West for everything; as for instance, there has been no detailed coverage of what enabled Bangladesh to develop her economy and society fast enough to surpass India’s per capita income in this year or why Sri Lanka’s per capita income – US$ 3679 is highest in South Asia. The electronic media coverage on regular basis of Pak sponsored terror in Kashmir and elsewhere, Pak role now in Taliban led Afghanistan and link with China might have helped towards building this image of Pakistan as a power strong enough on her own to even wage war against India as we keep talking about the possibility of a” two front war “.
This is however not true at all as discerning western observers have quite some time back dismissed Pakistan as a ” badly governed basket case” meaning a state surviving on foreign doles mainly. The fact that this situation hasn’t changed after Taliban take over of Afghanistan suggest that Pakistan’s capacity to play a lead role in Afghanistan is just not there as her economy is in a deep crisis; and because having gone so far to host and equip the Taliban, Pakistan cannot back out of Afghanistan, she is facing an existential crisis for reasons stated in the following paragraphs.
Hard reality of economic situation of a country is best reflected in the Statistics prepared by the multilateral agencies like the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank. These reports present a dismal and rather dysfunctional nature of the Pak economy which are summarised here.
In 2020 the size of the Pak economy as a country with a population of 23 crores that is ,its GDP was US$ 263 Billions and per capita income US 1260 as compared to Bangladesh GDP of $329 Billions with a population of 16cr – and per capita income US$ 2227 in 2020-21 Pakistan is poorer as its economy is roughly 45% smaller than that of Bangladesh. Pakistan’s foreign trade situation is dismal as it is less than even half of India’s China trade of about Us$90 Billions in 2021.In 2020 while the value of Pak merchandise exports was only$22bn, imports were worth US$32.42 Billions – a trade deficit of us$ 10.42 billion which is unlikely to improve given the fact that Pakistan exports mainly primary or low value added products such as cotton yarn, linens, cereals while she imports oil and gas, electrical machinery, communication equipment’s and such other high value added products and services. What enables Pakistan to survive now is the remittances it receives annually from its work force employed abroad- mainly in the Gulf and the Middle East which might reach a record of US$ 36 bn in this year and up from $ 28billions in 2020 . The fact that the annual remittances is more than the value of merchandise exports reveals only the structural weaknesses of the economy. Low value of trade has pulled down the Pak currency as the current Pak – Rupee US$ exchange rate is 171 Pak Rupee to 1 US$ as compared to 84 BD Taka to 1 US$ or 71 Indian Rupees to 1 US$. And what might come as a surprise to many is that one Bangladesh Taka fetches 2 Pak Rupees. On top of it is the mass poverty in Pakistan as according to a 2020 World Bank report an estimated 39.2% of people are in the BPL- Below Poverty line category which explains continuing low effective demand, low savings and investment obstructing growth which is hovering around 3.9% in the just concluded financial year ending on June 30 ,2021 which is a bit higher because of a low pandemic caused GDP base of 2020. When compared with the steady 8.2% growth of Bangladesh from 2019-20 this looks modest and unlikely to increase given the structural weaknesses of the Pak economy classified as ” semi industrialised” by the World Bank. These facts establish bluntly that ” remittances” provide the life support to the Pak economy which cannot support its population growing unsustainably@ 2% plus annually. Let’s not forget that at the time of its creation in 1947 population of West Pakistan was only 2.5 crores and that of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh 4.5 crores.
The Pakistani PM Imran Khan uses every opportunity to remind the world that Pakistan has nuclear weapons but never mentioned the distressing facts about Pak economy or society such as its gross failure to spread female literacy or improve infant mortality. In fact Pakistan is much like a larger version of Upper Volta of Sub Saharan Africa with nuclear weapons. Imran Khan is certainly aware that Pakistan has no capacity other than promoting terror in Kashmir and Afghanistan and the question of using nuclear weapons just doesn’t arise. However it is now clear from the way President Biden has been ignoring Imran Khan by not even calling him once after his assumption of the office of the US President that Pakistan has lost its importance in US strategic planning for Asia Pacific. And this after decades of collaboration with the US which was intensified after 9/11 US invasion of Afghanistan even when Pakistan was helping Taliban all these years to regroup and sustain itself to be able to throw out US and NATO forces from Afghanistan must be a shock to Pakistan as it cannot extricate herself from Afghanistan for three reasons : First, shared land border- the Durrand line demarcating Pakistan Afghanistan border which no Afghan government has ever recognised ;and second, shared ethnicity as the Pashtuns comprise over 70% of the population of Khyber Pakhtunia province bordering Afghanistan and about one third of the estimated 3 cr population of Afghanistan who dominate the Taliban led government in Kabul. Second, Pak Afghan border has to remain an open border for this very reason and the fact that the economies of the border regions have been intertwined, and since Soviet intervention in the late1970’s, a sizeable Afghan refugee population has been living in these border areas who are unlikely to return to Afghanistan. The third reason is complex history of Khyber Pakhtunia , a part of the Afghan kingdom partly conquered by Maharaja Ranjit Singh and extended by the British after annexation of Punjab in 1849 . In 1893 to extend its control over the strategic Khyber Pass the British negotiated a treaty with the Afghan ruler from a position of strength and delineated the border between the British India and Afghanistan which is known as Durrand Line ( named after Sir Henry Mortimer Durrand, then Foreign Secretary who negotiated with the Afghan king )which had the effect of dividing the Pashtun homelands into India and Afghanistan. The area was made a part of Punjab and later in 1901 a separate province- North West Frontier Province was created which is now Khyber Pakhtunia, a tribal area of Pakistan along its borders with Afghanistan..
No Afghan government till date has recognised the Durrand line and in fact Afghanistan opposed admission of Pakistan to the UN on this very ground and has not given up its claim to this province of Pakistan. This complicates the matter for Pakistan as ethnic Pashtuns constitute the vast majority of its population. Since Pashtun nationalism is very much alive in Pakistan ,the capture of power in Afghanistan by Pashtun dominated Taliban has serious implications for Pakistan’s territorial integrity. It may be recalled that in 1947 the NWFP Assembly passed a resolution against joining Pakistan under the leadership of Dr. Khan Saheb and even wished to join India or remain independent; and to undo it the British Government promulgated the infamous June 3 declaration to hold a referendum on the issue in NWFP and despite all the state backing, the verdict went in favour of Pakistan only by a margin of just about 1%- a mockery of the democratic process to determine the will of the people. Dr. Khan Saheb’s party boycotted the Referendum as it didn’t contain any option for the province to remain independent. Pashtun national identity however has remained alive and in a way found expression in the Taliban led movement against US occupation of Afghanistan.Now for the first time in modern times consolidation of Pashtun nationalism encompassing the home lands of the Pashtuns seems a distinct possibility- a prospect that strikes at the root of what is left to the idea of Pakistan after the emergence of Bangladesh.
The fault lines of Pakistan’s territorial integrity extend to Baluchistan and Sindh as well for reasons which are well documented. The ethnic Baluch are also in Afghanistan (4% of its population) and Iran and share the aspirations of Pakistan’s larger Baluch people for a separate state. It is also a fact that dispute between Sind and Punjab over sharing of water of Indus has reached a point of crisis as reported in the last 15th October edition of the Dawn, the leading Pakistani daily. These contradictions are becoming more pronounced in an economy battered by high inflation and burden of foreign debt which raise serious doubts about Pakistan’s capacity to play any role in Afghanistan other than as a tool of China because it doesn’t have any money to spare ,and the Afghans need foreign aid to survive which is clear when one looks at its current economic situation. With a GDP of about US$ 20 billion – about the size of the economy of Dhaka city and 40% of which is opium trade, low tax base as the per capita income is only US$ 507, it was foreign aid that sustained the Afghan state and the economy as 75% of the budget had been foreign aid since US intervention after 9/11 . Today Afghanistan is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis as over a third of its population is in dire need of food aid to survive this winter. Afghan export trade is primary products based mainly like dry fruits and 45% of it is with India- a fact which will compel the Taliban to avoid an anti Indian posture.
In this scenario the Chinese involvement on a significant scale in Afghanistan is unlikely because of the recent Chinese experience in CPEC- China Pakistan Economic Corridor project of working with a dysfunctional local government in Pakistan . This will be far worse in Afghanistan as it was never a “modern state” founded on rule of law and functional institutions capable of maintaining peace and order, settlement of contractual obligations within a reasonable time frame essential for conduct of any business or extractive activities like mining that might attract China to Afghanistan.
Pakistan thus has no capacity to provide any financial assistance or arranging the same from the Middle East countries now as she is held in low esteem in the West being the sponsor of Taliban. In fact a Bill recently moved by 22 influential US Senators in US Senate entitled Afghanistan Counter Terrorism, Oversight and Accountability contains harsh provisions for imposition of sanctions on countries and entities found supporting Taliban or any such terrorist organisations . Therefore if enacted the provisions of this US legislation will put Pakistan in serious jeopardy as she would not be able to get away with her act of providing support to the Taliban while receiving US aid to contain it at the same time. Thus, Pakistan cannot disentangle herself from Afghanistan because of domestic Pashtun factor which means a long term engagement in the Afghan quagmire. And this the Pakistani state, already put in the ” grey list” of FATF(Financial Action Task Force) for providing support to terror groups and its stagnant economy are just not in a position to undertake. The reality is that” state building” is an unfinished task as much in Afghanistan as in Pakistan . The only difference is that it didn’t even begin in Afghanistan as it has not as yet clear land laws or records of rights of land holders which perpetuated the rule of the local chiefs ,while in Pakistan the laws, systems and institutions of governance it inherited from the colonial period as in India such as the district administration and the criminal justice system had been grossly distorted under long spells of military rule to an extent that the Pakistani state is really a “hybrid state” having more features of authoritarian state than a state founded on the rule of law- a firm step towards a ” failed state” as Myanmar in our neighborhood.
In this background it is clear that longer the Afghan engagement, greater will be the damages it would cause to Pakistan’s fledgling state and economy deepening and widening the ” fault lines” outlined here in the process which is certain to bring about its disintegration; because its power base, Punjab has no access to the Sea nor any vibrant economy to sustain the hybrid state in a scenario of increasing internal ethnic tensions and costly unavoidable involvement in Afghanistan. Thus the challenge before Indian strategic planning is to factor impending collapse of Pakistan and its implications for security and development of India in the present Indo Pacific context.
The author recalls that even in January 1971 there was no inkling not to speak of any assessment of a possible break down of the Pakistani authority in East Pakistan in the minds of those who led the Governments of both Pakistan and India. Even in the areas bordering East Pakistan such as Assam , Tripura and West Bengal it was business as usual. The violence on March 23 in Dacca which followed military crackdown took every one by surprise which led to formation of the political will among the Bengali people to secede from Pakistan.
From a geopolitical perspective, the emergence of a Pashtun dominated power base encompassing Pashtun inhabited areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan has had the effect of laying down a new defacto border supplanting the Durrand Line as it means consolidation of the Pashtun identity. Its impact on Pakistan could be far reaching as it would make the identity assertion of the Baluch and Sindhi people more strident weakening thereby the strangle hold of land locked Punjab in the power structure of Pakistan and deepening the existing fault lines. The process may be long drawn but it is a desperate endgame all the same for Pakistan because neither China nor Russia or any power of the middle east could have any serious ” geopolitical interest” in Afghanistan given its ” ungovernable” polity and complex society. It may also lead to final burial of the idea of Pakistan as the homeland of the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent .