The cocktail that was mixed in Pakistan in 2020 has ingredients that have remained largely unchanged in recent history. Internally, the issues that predominated were, firstly civil military frictions which were reflected in increased inter-party feuding; second, extremism and terrorism; and finally, a gloomy economic forecast. Externally the areas of most significance included relations with Afghanistan, India, China, the United States (US), and the Gulf states. Interestingly, the pandemic, which has impacted Pakistan as it has other countries, was not a factor in this cocktail.
Standing out among the numerous events that jostled for precedence domestically is former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s defiant roar against the military from his exile in London to a combined opposition conference in September. Referring to a “State above the State”, the Sharif crossed the invisible red line of Pakistan: That mainstream political leaders not criticise the military publicly. Nevertheless, Sharif’s charged rhetoric has given their new front, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), its cutting edge.
It may well turn out that the PDM will pose a more formidable challenge for the military, the ruling party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and the others. The ruling party appears stable enough with the military firmly behind it, but clearly the opposition strategy is to continue to mount pressure. In many ways, it is ironic that the opposition is using much the same tactics that Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan used against Sharif’s government from 2014 onwards. The difference is, of course, the role of the military — it was then supportive of Khan in opposition; it now finds itself supporting his government against an opposition.
Pakistan’s ongoing review in the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) process meant its efforts to remove itself from the grey list or at least not get blacklisted saw greater urgency during the year. A number of United Nations-listed terrorists were thus convicted, including some high-profile names wanted for carrying out attacks in India. The list includes Hafiz Sayeed and Abdul Rahman Makki. The convictions were on account of terrorist financing rather than for actual involvement in acts of terrorism. In any case, the action taken possibly appeared too little and too late to have much impact — at least on opinion in India.
Relations with India remained at their familiar same low plateau over the year interspersed by firefights on the Line of Control (LoC) in violation of the ceasefire, acrimonious exchanges bilaterally and in international platforms, and a frequently-charged rhetoric on Jammu and Kashmir from Pakistan’s military and political leadership. Missing, however, were the dramas of the super-charged military tensions of 2019. Missing also was any unusual step forward towards de-securitisation such as the opening of the Kartarpur Saheb corridor in November 2019.
If relations with India then remained largely stationary, there was considerable change in other relationships. With China there appeared to be an even greater cementing and consolidation. A cluster of explanations arise here — the India-China tensions on account of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) stand-off in Ladakh and an emerging gulf in Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates makes Pakistan’s fragile economy even more dependent on Chinese loans and aid. Possibly this change in equations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states is the cause of greater worry for Pakistan. While there have been ups and downs in this relationship in the past, nevertheless during Nawaz Sharif’s tenure there was never much doubt about the basic texture and strength of the relationship.
On the other hand, what has significantly changed for the better is the Pakistan-US relationship. The US Taliban Agreement of April 2020, the direct dialogue between the Taliban and the Afghan government all were the platforms on which the repair of US-Pakistan relations took place. In brief, the US rediscovered Pakistan’s utility in Afghanistan. That this happened within the tenure of the Trump presidency gave to many in Pakistan the hope that things will begin with the new Biden administration on a more stable note and move quickly in a positive direction.
TCA Raghavan is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan. He is currently Director General of the Indian Council of World Affairs
The views are personal