Pakistan: Plus ca change

A democratic transition of power was overshadowed by drone strikes, economic weakness and sectarian violence in 2013.

Sectarian killings blighted parts of Pakistan in 2013 [AFP]
Sectarian killings blighted parts of Pakistan in 2013 [AFP]

For a year that has been dubbed a year of change for Pakistan, an awful lot has stayed the same.

The country’s year began, as many recent years have, drenched in blood: On January 10, the southwestern city of Quetta saw its Shia Muslim community targeted, with more than 95 people killed in an attack carried out by the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), an armed Sunni Muslim group.

Fast forward 12 months, and sectarian violence is at levels not seen in more than a decade. Through the course of 2013, more than 506 people have been killed in sectarian violence (96 percent of those killed being Shia , with the minority being mostly Sunni activists associated with a political group calling for Shia to be declared non-Muslim).

It was not just sectarian violence that wracked the country in 2013. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other armed groups continued their campaign against the state, targeting state institutions, security and military personnel and civilians alike. In all, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal watchdog, at least 5,242 people were killed in “terrorism-related violence” this year. Almost 3,000 of those killed, according to SATP, were civilians, as the TTP and affiliated groups hit government buildings, checkpoints, churches and even mosques, during a year that was supposed to see an abortive dialogue process restarted.

From struggle to crisis

The economy, meanwhile, continues to struggle with the twin pressures of a worsening energy crisis and spiraling unemployment and inflation. The newly elected PML-N-led government swept to power after historic general elections in May, which saw, for the first time, a democratically-elected civilian government complete its five-year term in office and hand over the reins to another, similarly elected government, on the back of promises to restore economic prosperity with a raft of pro-business reforms.

Instead, the energy crisis continues to cripple the country’s industries, with food inflation at 13 percent, and more than four million people in the labour force unemployed, according to official statistics .

Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister, is not the only new face in office. The country’s powerful judiciary saw Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who has been responsible for toppling a dictator and dismissing an elected prime minister, replaced by Tassaduq Hussain Jillani, a judicial moderate who is less likely than his predecessor to rock the political boat.

The military, too, has seen a changing of the guard, with General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani completing an unprecedented six years in charge of the world’s seventh largest standing army, a force which dominates Pakistan’s institutional space. Kayani’s tenure was characterised by the undertaking of large-scale military operations against anti-state armed groups, including the Pakistani Taliban, with the army having to pivot from preparedness against traditional foe India towards being more geared for counter-insurgency operations. Kayani is replaced by General Raheel Sharif, a relative unknown who was a dark horse for the post of what many consider to be the most powerful man in Pakistan.

And, finally, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has seen its own leadership change at the top, after previous chief Hakimullah Mehsud was killed in a US drone strike on November 1, the latest in a campaign that saw 25 drone strikes kill at least 149 people on Pakistan’s soil. After a brief period of confusion, the TTP elected hardliner Mullah Fazlullah as its head, apparently signaling an end to any dialogue process.

It is the reinvigorated TTP that will remain Pakistan’s main security threat in 2014, but an impending US pullout from Afghanistan next year is also occupying Pakistani policy-makers’ minds. With no clear indication yet of what the future US military presence in Afghanistan will be, Pakistan will be seeking to avoid a repeat of the end of the last Afghan War, where it was left to manage an unstable situation in the wake of the Soviet pullout.

And so, as the year winds down, Pakistanis look back a year that has been one of cycles: a new government, but with the same inherent problems of feudalism and structural decay; a new army chief, but the same incoherence on the issue of tolerance for certain kinds of armed groups; a new chief of the judiciary, but the same institutional problems of impunity for the powerful and a structure buried in backlogs.

For Pakistan, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim

Source : Al Jazeera

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