If I said ‘Pakistan is at an important juncture of its history’, I know most people would laugh or shrug it off as something they have been told a million times already. So, I have decided to fashion seven measures and leave it to the readers to use them to find out for themselves where exactly Pakistan is heading in 2015.
Here you go:
1. Whatever happens in North Dakota?
The ‘oil-wrestling’ games will roll over into 2015. Sit back, enjoy the plummeting prices and hope for lesser load-shedding.
They say when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. But something quite contrary is happening in the world economy these days: as the fight between the oil giants is getting worse, our pastures are turning greener than ever.
Oil (petrol) prices in the world market are facing the worst slump of recent history. From a high of $115 (per barrel) in June 2014, the prices have nosedived to $60 in mid-December. According to The Economist, a price cut of $40 shifts $1.3 trillion from oil producers to consumers. (How big is $1.3 trillion? The GDP of China in 2013 was $9.24 trillion.)
The present reduction of $55 over June simply means boon for all developing economies. More money in consumers’ pockets raises demand for everything. It also means lower cost of production and prices that are affordable by more people. From farmers sowing wheat for home consumption to industrialists filling apparel export orders, everyone will benefit.
It is good news for a Pakistan government looking to weather the ever-worsening energy crisis. It can reap its benefits in both economic and political spheres. Lower oil prices will help reduce cost of energy and is likely to ease out load-shedding.
We owe this ‘largesse’ to the oilmen of North Dakota and Texas who have utilised a new technique called fracking to drill out oil from reserves that were earlier inaccessible or considered not viable. The supply gush of what is called shale gas has glutted the market, sending oil prices into a tailspin. Right now there is a war going on between ‘Shiekhs and shale’, in the words of The Economist, and lots of twists and turns are in store.
So enjoy the good times, hope for a better economy and don’t go away — Stay tuned to the free-style wrestling match between the energy giants.
2. In and around Lal Masjid, Islamabad, and Chauburji, Lahore too
As the war on terrorism enters a new dimension, everything that happens (and doesn’t happen) to our local militant outfits will be central in shaping a (hopefully) new narrative of the country we live in.
The fight against terrorism in Pakistan has gone into top gear towards the end of 2014, and it seems that the pressure from the clutch has also been released. It is finally moving forward and has shown ample signs of force and resolve with which it intends to march ahead.
But let us not be deceived. Terrorism as we, Pakistanis, have lived through over the past decades is not about a group of rouge, violent and misguided elements. It has taken deep roots in society, its polity and its economy as well.
The narratives that were propagated to support and sustain terrorism are also the ones that determine the way we see our religion, our religious minorities and other faiths. They define the way we perceive nationalism and decide for us which Pakistan we will live in.
These narratives and the structures supporting and sustaining them form the chilling mass underneath the tip of the iceberg known as terrorists. So while terrorist causalities matter, this fight is no high scoring-T20 that sends the national adrenaline level through the roof.
The tip will be chopped off but will the invisible mass melt too?
So if you are eager for signs of a real change in Pakistan in 2015, watch out for what happens at Lal Masjid, Islamabad, whose students have publicly expressed their support to the militants of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Watch out for what transpires at Chauburji, Lahore the working headquarters of Jamaat-ud-Dawa; that spews anti-India venom and is positioned to countervail initiatives for regional cooperation taken by elected governments.
Also important will be what happens with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and a dozen other names that the outfit comes in, as their anti-Shia ‘jihad’ has been instrumental in replacing belief with hatred and equating tolerance with treason in our country.
3. What is hidden underneath Kabul’s snow?
Will we see the last of ‘strategic depth’, of toxic connivances and of the Taliban to usher in a new era of peace and regional cooperation?
Afghanistan will celebrate Nowruz on Saturday, March 21, 2015. It is one of the biggest annual festivals in the entire region including Central Asia, Iran and Afghanistan. That’s when the spring equinox happens, life completes a full circle and enters the next one. The snow melts, water starts flowing in streams again and the New Year begins.
As the sun shines bright, a host of things buried underneath icy white masses raise their heads. This includes both flowers and old wounds. The coming spring will be an extraordinary time for the Afghans as after three devastating decades of bloodshed, hopes for the beginning of an era of peace will be the strongest.
Most of the US and allied troops will have been home by then. The rest will be out of a pro-active combat role, which effectively means that the Afghan National Army will be face-to-face with its adversary, the Taliban.
It will be the last ‘opportunity’ for the Taliban to disrupt the system now in place in Afghanistan and make efforts for restoration of their ‘emirate’ (or some ‘khilafat’) that was dismantled by the US forces in 2001.
The Taliban have been significantly weakened as a fighting force. Their supply lines are curtailed and morale is low. The coming spring will all but disclose the real size of the Taliban as a fighting force. Initiatives to engage them out of the battlefield and break peace agreements with them are also afoot.
Whatever transpires in the battlefields and around negotiation tables in Afghanistan is crucial for Pakistan. It can translate into a lasting peace heralding a new era of regional cooperation and economic progress, and if things go wrong it might not only mean stagnation but more trouble.
Odds are stacked against a Taliban comeback but keep Kabul on your radar with a mix of anxiety and hope.
By the way, Pakistan’s strategic depth dream will be a ‘collateral damage’ of peace in Afghanistan. So if you are a Pakistan-reigns-supreme-over-the-world buff, do plan to take a refresher course in nationalism.
4. Will ‘ilaqa-e-ghair’ become ‘apna mulk’?
The time is ripe to do the overdue — integrate Fata into the country and turn the ‘tribal brothers’ into Pakistani citizens.
The military campaign in Pakistan’s tribal areas has resulted in a mass exodus of local inhabitants. As soon as the campaign makes significant gains, the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) will want to return home.
But will they return to the same old Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata, known as ilaqa ghair in common parlance) caught in the jinx of a colonial-style governance system? The areas have had the status of ‘semi-governed’ for far too long which in reality means that its citizens have no rights and the authorities have no responsibilities.
This backwater of Pakistan has been kept lawless and transformed into a factory producing indoctrinated mercenaries fighting for dubious causes to promote ill-conceived foreign policy objectives. Pakistan is currently out to liquidate these strategic assets that have become a liability in a changed international environ.
But if Pakistan has to really uproot militancy and avoid its recurrence, it will have to abandon the endeared notion of ‘valorous tribes ready to sacrifice their lives’. It will have to extend the rule of law to these areas and start considering ‘the tribals’ as its citizens who need schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, clinics, police and all other civic amenities as does the rest of the country.
The integration of the Fatas into the federation will require consensus among all parties and constitutional amendments. It might also necessitate some Pak-Afghan negotiations on the border between the two, also called the Durand Line.
So news about an All Parties Conference deciding details of integrating these areas into the country will be important and the absence of any such news will be a cause of worry.
5. Will Imran Khan bounce back?
The dharna is over. The issues are not. How will the PTI go about politicking next? Will the naya year bring a naya Imran Khan?
Imran Khan abandoned the biggest adventure of his political career in the wake of the December 16 Peshawar carnage. His movement was in dire straits anyway and many critiques believe that his party was desperate for a safe and honourable exit.
The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf is now in negotiations with the ruling party on its demand of setting up a judicial commission to probe the allegations of rigging in the 2013 elections. The talks do not at the moment seem to be heading towards a settlement. It will be important how these actually conclude in the near future.
The campaign against terrorism is likely to bring to fore new issues and change the national political agendas towards the second half of 2015. If the campaign succeeds quickly, who will get the credit and politically cash on it; and if it hits snags, who will be held responsible for new problems that might arise?
PTI politics might not remain focused on the sole agenda of rigging in previous elections.
The provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is at the centre stage and its actions and stances related to the campaign against terrorism will be debated and contested at length on the national level. The PTI is leading a coalition government and its numbers in the house are not very secure.
In short, there will be lots of opportunities for politicking on hot national issues as new political realities take shape.
It will be interesting to see what avatar the PTI chooses as the choice will not only impact day-to-day politics of the coming year, but also affect the politics of KP and Punjab in the coming years.
So with bated breath, we await the naya Imran Khan.
6. Mid-term verdict?
The pressure to make local bodies elections happen, will be greater than before. Watch out for new configurations of power.
While the Nawaz government may feel relieved at the abrupt end of the PTI’s protest campaign, it cannot take the rest of its tenure for granted. It has a lot many challenges to face still, one of them being organising local government elections.
The elected governments are under constitutional obligation to hold these local polls, and the Supreme Court has been pressuring them to fulfill it. But they have been evading it under one pretext or the other. The security situation may provide yet another excuse, but it may not hold for too long.
The Supreme Court has recently made the federal government appoint Chief Election Commissioner, another obligation that the government was dragging its feet on.
Local government elections will be important not only because these will take the electoral democracy down to the grassroots level, but also because they will serve as ‘shadow mid-term elections’. The aggregate verdict coming out of these will have the capacity to redirect the course of national politics.
Consider, for example, if the PTI can repeat its general election 2013 performance in KP and sustain or improve in Punjab, it will attack the Nawaz government with renewed vigour and from a more legitimate position.
In turn, if the PML-N can sustain or improve its position in the local elections in Punjab, it will consider itself secure until the general elections in 2018. Local elections can also unsettle the present balance of power in Karachi and the rest of Sindh.
So local elections, whenever they are held, if not in 2015 then maybe next year, will give birth to new political realities.
7. The billion dollar march
Tons of foreign investment is waiting to pour into Pakistan — waiting for an end to terrorism risks. If that happens, the worst may be behind us.
Mega projects worth tens of billions of dollars are waiting in the wings, east, west and north of Pakistan. China is eager to invest in what is called a trade corridor to give a transport outlet to its fast developing northwestern Xinjiang. It is also keen on developing a massive copper field, considered the world’s second largest, in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan and India want a passage through Pakistan as the latter wants to mine iron ore in Bamiyan, Afghanistan.
Tajikistan requested Pakistan, just days ago, to allow land route for importing oil from Middle East. A gas pipeline project running from Tajikistan to Afghanistan, Pakistan and then India is being negotiated since the past few years.
These projects will prove a boon for our economy and will enrich and increase the size of our middle class. These opportunities are knocking at our door and will gate-crash as soon as terrorism subsides.
Mega investors are very shrewd about calculating risks that their projects might face and progress on these projects and terrorism are inversely related. So, any time next year if you think terrorism has waned, expect multi-billion projects to kick-start immediately; or if you read about real advancement on these projects first, you can be sure that we are past the most horrid phase of terrorism in our country.
Tahir Mehdi works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.
He tweets @TahirMehdiZ