Little has changed in Pakistan over the last 20 years. The unshakeable Nawaz Sharif was the Prime Minister when I was a child celebrating my 13th birthday. Domestic political mafias were causing terror on the streets of Karachi and inter-provincial rivalries were just as much an issue then as they are now. Political cronyism and corruption was the rule rather than the exception and dynastic politics reigned supreme.
Given the gradual societal deterioration, ethnic strife, sectarian violence and extremism, Pakistan is a country on the precipice, but has been so for the majority of its existence. If we're to look beneath the surface however, recent developments may unearth a guiding light past the evolutionary dead-end and bring reason for cautious optimism.
Despite its internal problems, Pakistan is slowly emerging as a key cog in the geopolitics of the region. In light of the OPEC market share war and the Syrian crisis, both Iran and Saudi Arabia are looking to tilt the power balance in their favour - a balance that lies with Pakistan as a military power. Instead of gravitating towards its traditional Sunni ally in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan is attempting to play a positive role in diffusing tensions between the two regional powers while also keeping its interests in mind.
Interests such as the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a 3,000-kilometer network of roads, railways and pipelines to transport oil and gas from southern Pakistan's Gwadar Port to northwestern China is central to Pakistan's neutral position. If CPEC is to be realized, a closer relationship with Iran becomes imperative. The semi-autonomous Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistani administered Kashmir is the gateway of the planned CPEC route from China into Pakistan with historical political ties to Iran. Iran also borders Pakistan's volatile Balochistan province - the home of Pakistan's Chinese-built Gwadar port and final CPEC destination.
The Iranian relationship becomes doubly significant given that India recently approved $150 million credit line for the development of its Chabahar port on the southern coast of Iran. The port has the potential to compete directly with Pakistan's Gwadar port for access to Central Asian and Middle Eastern markets. From a geopolitical perspective, it would be in Pakistan's best interest to keep Iran within its orbit either through CPEC or the dwindling Iran-Pakistan pipeline to prevent it from drifting into India's domain.
There is a domestic dimension that is just as important. If CPEC is to become a reality, placating the semi-autonomous Gilgit-Baltistan region and its majority Shiite population will be crucial as the region acts as the gateway to the project between China and Pakistan. In fact, if Pakistan truly wants this economic opportunity to come to fruition, the government will need to consider input from all provinces and from a multitude of voices rather than from just from Punjab or Sindh. This exercise of economic collaboration, if done properly, can to lead to greater inter-provincial harmony and further state evolution.
Potential for Stability
Pakistan's history is replete with underlying tensions between civilian governments and the military. Instances of government corruption followed by military coups exacerbated existing problems and undermined security and stability. With both Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and military chief Raheel Sharif in political lockstep, stability may be more viable than in the past.
Working together towards shared economic and domestic challenges has kept the government from entering foreign conflicts and wading into military misadventures. Such pragmatism demonstrates a shift from the past where Pakistan's infatuation with India and obsession with Afghanistan resulted in impulsive policies that only resulted in unnecessary blowback.
Instead, the military's role as the de-facto state power has been integral in allowing the civilian government to govern while thwarting attempts at internal destabilization from terrorist outfits. The recent arrest of 97 Lakshar-e-Jhangvi militants who were attempting to free the Khalid Omar Sheikh, the killer of the late Wall Street journalist Daniel Pearl, is just one example. More importantly, Pakistan seems to finally be winning its fight against terrorism, a development that is crucial to a lasting peace and future prosperity.
It must be noted that although governments and militaries can create the foundation of stability and economic opportunity through policy, real evolution is only possible by the momentum these policies create. If Pakistan is to descend from the precipice it sits on, any momentum from CPEC and long-term peace must continue in the areas of human rights, government accountability, literacy and law enforcement. In the end, any true evolution will not be up to self-interested governments and powerful militaries. It will be up to the people of Pakistan to ensure it continues in perpetuity.
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