Features | Politics | Central Asia

Pakistan’s Roller Coaster 2012

Last year was an unsettling year for Pakistanis. With political upheaval and security threats looming, 2012 will likely bring more of the same.

By Arif Rafiq for

Deadly violence bookended Pakistan’s 2011. The year began with the assassination of Salmaan Taseer, governor of the country’s largest province, by his bodyguard. It ended with a deadly NATO attack on a border base that killed 24 Pakistani security personnel.

In the months in between, U.S.-Pakistan relations went into free fall. CIA contractor Raymond was acquitted of murder after apparently killing two Pakistanis in broad daylight in Lahore. Later, the United States unilaterally killed Osama bin Laden near a Pakistani military academy, humiliating Pakistan’s army and air force. Subsequently, an angered U.S. Congress moved to restrict aid to Pakistan.

Domestically, former cricketer Imran Khan shook up Pakistani politics, with his party emerging as a third way political force. Meanwhile, the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) was put on the defensive when an anti-military memo delivered to the Pentagon, alleged to have been coauthored by Islamabad’s ambassador in Washington, forced the diplomat’s resignation and strained ties with the military, sparking talk of a possible coup.

Amid all this turmoil, Pakistan’s state and citizens went unattended. Economic growth was anemic, inflation remained high, and major state-owned companies bled billions of dollars.

All of this means that 2012 may well be both a year of change, and more of the same.

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Here are five developments to watch out for in 2012:

A new government in Islamabad. National and provincial assembly polls are scheduled for 2013, but Pakistanis will likely head to the polls around the time Americans do this autumn. For months, the opposition Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) has been clamoring for early elections. Now, the governing coalition leader the PPP appears to have decided to move for early polls, currently expected to be held in October.

Both the PML-N and PPP face a serious challenge from Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI), which could be the next coalition government’s kingmaker by gaining the third largest share of National Assembly seats. By the year’s end, there could be a new prime minister in Islamabad and a new president-elect in Washington, adding even more uncertainty to the volatile bilateral relationship.

The U.S. and Pakistan struggle to shape an Afghanistan endgame. As the electoral process intensifies in both Pakistan and the United States, there’s been a major though highly reversible step forward in the pursuit of a political end to the Afghanistan war. The Afghan Taliban has agreed to the opening of a political office in Qatar. This is a major confidence building measure, but by no means brings an end to the conflict.

The roles of Islamabad, Rawalpindi, and Kabul in the fragile U.S.-Taliban talks are unclear at this point, and only time will tell whether such moves are substantive or more of a public relations move.

Pakistan: the sick man of South Asia. Last year, Pakistan was home to South Asia’s slowest growing economy. This year looks set to be another year of low growth, with the country’s once bright economic prospects darkened by insecurity, political instability, and crippling energy shortages (due in large part to gross mismanagement).

Pakistan also faces a potential balance of payments crisis as it begins to pay back an International Monetary Fund loan, especially if the energy-starved country has to import more costly fuel. The inflow of U.S. aid money, meanwhile, is uncertain. And don’t expect Pakistan’s “best friend” China to fill the void.

Jihadists to strike India once again? Its been some time since the last large-scale terror attack in India having been planned on Pakistani soil. Lashkar-e Taiba (LeT), through its front group Jamaat-ud-Dawa, has taken a far more prominent, and quasi-political, role in Pakistan. Its leaders have led large rallies against the repeal of the anti-blasphemy laws and, through the Pakistan Defense Council, protests against the U.S. role in the region. But how long can the LeT go not bloodying India’s nose without damaging its own coherency, causing serious internal strains, and possibly even pushing elements of the group to target Islamabad instead?

No end in sight to the Balochistan insurgency. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has declared 2012 the year of Balochistan as part of a pledge to bring some kind of resolution to the province’s latest insurgency. But his 2009 Aghaz-e Huqooq-e Balochistan package, which sought to appease Baloch separatists using development projects, has failed to quell anti-state sentiment, which is rooted in identity politics. Meanwhile, a targeted campaign against Baloch activists, journalists, and militants by Pakistan’s military-intelligence apparatus has only helped spread secessionist Baloch nationalist sentiments. 

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This low-intensity conflict is unlikely to result in an independent Balochistan, but the insurgents have an effective veto power over the construction of a major gas pipeline, port, and rail network in this energy and mineral-rich – and critically located – province.

Whether we’re talking domestically or internationally, this year is already shaping up to be another unsettled, and unsettling, one for Pakistanis.

Arif Rafiq is president of Vizier Consulting, LLC, which provides strategic guidance on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. He writes at the Pakistan Policy Blog (www.pakistanpolicy.com) and tweets at @PakistanPolicy.