Pakistan: The Sinking Nuclear Frog
- In Military & Strategic Affairs
- 11:32 AM, Mar 18, 2023
- LT GEN P R SHANKAR (Retd)
As Pakistan drifts rapidly towards default, there is intense speculation daily on its future. Many in India feel that it will auto-Balkanise. There is a huge commentary on how to deal with the fallout of such a breakup. There is also considerable nationalistic fervour to retake the entire POK. Many also assess that Pakistan being a nuclear state will not be allowed to break up. Such assessments opine that the strong Pakistani Army will hold it together and continue to pose a threat to India. From within Pakistan, there are many voices of despair. They indicate a slow descent into anarchy. Editorials across the border, talk of Neros’ who are constantly fiddling as Pakistan burns. The fact of the matter is that the nuclear-armed country is at a dead end; caught in a debt trap from which it cannot escape. It goes, hat in hand, from country to country, institution to institution, begging for alms. It expects IMF, World Bank, ‘friendly’ and ‘once friendly’ countries to rescue it. A recent opinion from within refers to Pakistan as a serial beggar. What is the future of this nuclear beggar?
Pakistan was once the gateway to the oil-rich countries of the Middle East and Central Asia. It provided the Islamic Bomb to the Muslim world. It was the great enabler in the Sino-US entente in the 70s. It gave access to the warm waters of the Gulf to those who sought it. It was the bulwark against the expanding arc of communism. It acquired the tag of being the frontline state in the Cold War between the USA and USSR. It continued with its moniker of indispensability in the war against terror. It was the lifeline for everything and everyone in a turbulent Afghanistan to meet their respective ends – USA, Mujahedeen, and Taliban et al. It was legendary in being able to take on a stronger India by proxy through radical jihadis and repeatedly tie it in knots. Its modern military with visionary thoughts could take on adversaries far greater than itself. The USA, rich gulf nations, China and all other benefactors provided it with ample financial, political, and diplomatic resources that helped it tide over the near-death financial and economic paroxysms it periodically suffered. Pakistan was a friend to all except India. It was the toast of the international community for the best part of its seven decades of eventful existence.
Those heady days are over due to a palpable geopolitical shift. The global energy situation and the fossil fuel economy, driven by the impending climate change are morphing. There is a worldwide search for renewable and alternative energy sources. In this uncertain future, the once oil-cash, rich gulf states are looking for wealth preservation through diversification. Once inimical states like Israel and UAE or Saudi Arabia and Iran are seeking mutual accommodation. West Asia and the Middle East were the geopolitical focus of the last century.
Currently, the focus has shifted to the Indo-Pacific. The latest focus is Ukraine. Pakistan is an unaffordable luxury in this prominent geopolitical shift. It has lost its strategic value. In fact, the economic conduit from across the Gulf is looking to be increasingly and strictly transactional. The USA has learnt its lesson after the double cross it experienced in Afghanistan. China is facing its own financial issues. It further sees that CPEC as an economic proposition is losing value. The cost-benefit equation of rescuing Pakistan is in negative territory.
Richer nations do not want to invest in Pakistan which is considered to be the most dangerous country in the world. External aid to Pakistan is only limited to the IMF. That too comes with huge strings. Overall, Pakistan has entered into a state of suspended geostrategic animation with diminished value. This condition will remain so for at least a decade if not more.
Pakistan is not failing due to its poor economy, terrorism or over-militarism. All other factors aside, it is failing on a permanent basis due to lack of water. Pakistan’s water availability graph (above), indicates that as its population exploded, it became a water-stressed nation in the 90’s. Around 2005, it entered the water-scarcity zone. Beyond 2025, it is heading into the absolute water scarcity zone. When Pakistan goes below the absolute water scarcity zone shortly, it will enter the arena of perpetual failure.
Pakistan’s two major water reservoirs, Tarbela and Mangla, are silted up. Both dams dip to dead water levels in summer. The under-construction Diamer Bhasha Dam caters only partially, to the loss of water capacity due to silting of existing dams. There are no additional sources of water other than a dying Indus nor has Pakistan’s water storage capacity increased.
The IMF bailout(s), now or before, are not for ameliorating its dismal water situation. The current bailout does not even meet its short-term requirement to tide over the recent crisis due to unprecedented floods. Every penny spent on Pakistan’s relentless increase in military expenditure has been a penny less for water. All water-related projects have either been pulled out from the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) or are under review with no timeline whatsoever.
Pakistan’s slide into water scarcity is unchecked. For a country in which agriculture is 20% of the GDP, this is scary. Pakistan was once a net food exporter. It is now a net food importer in perpetuity. There is no solution for its looming food insecurity in sight. Climate change and global warming will further affect water availability and food security adversely. Population growth in the future and any intended economic growth will only increase the requirement for water; which is not available in the first place. In a couple of years when absolute water scarcity takes a grip, the situation will spiral down even further. The existing low levels of productivity can only dip further. Pakistan faces an existential crisis. Not from India but from water, rather the lack of it!
Pakistanis are not able to put three meals on the table on a daily basis as per their media. Yet their main political parties and leaders are constantly feuding for power. Even if one of them emerges a winner, there will be nothing to light up the land of the pure with undistilled joy. After all, it was these very politicians who ruled the nation for 75 years and brought Pakistan to this state of penury. They can only take it down further. The judiciary in the country is in disarray.
Earlier, they were unanimously playing second fiddle to the Army with occasional flashes of independent judgement. One does not even know whom they are supporting now. The country has a president who passes all kinds of orders. Those are promptly ignored or challenged or rubbished publicly by the PM and all institutions. Under such conditions, the Army used to step up and take over the country. However, the Army, for the first time in its 75 years of existence, is itself deeply divided. It is no more the darling of the Pakistan masses.
More importantly, it has no solutions to offer to rectify the dismal state of the nation. In the event, it is visibly hesitant to even entertain the idea of a takeover and preside over ashes. Further, it is unable to stem the mayhem and violence wreaked by the TTP and Baloch rebels. The Taliban was hoisted into power by the venerable generals of the Pakistani Army cocking a snook at it. The Army seems unsure, helpless and vulnerable. It is more bent on self-preservation. Combine this disarray with the debt, financial and economic problems of the nation duly factoring in the radical elements. The picture which emerges is that of a dismal and bleak future worse than the brightest English summer. The elites of the nation are in an each-to-himself mode. In this scenario, a Pakistani messiah is as invisible as the ‘Id ka Chand’.
Pakistan prided itself on being a frontline state. Today it is turning into a frontline pawn in the oncoming international competition between the USA and China. Till some time back the USA was heavily invested in Pakistan geo-strategically. In that period, China came forth to woo Pakistan away from the US fold. It successfully did so with the CPEC. After the Afghanistan fiasco, as the USA disengaged itself from the region, China and Pakistan exulted. However, the USA still retains the keys and levers to keep Pakistan afloat. China’s heavy investments in Pakistan are coming unstuck. It is being forced to keep advancing loans to keep Pakistan on its side.
In this entire play, one sees that Pakistan is slowly but steadily becoming a battleground state between the USA and China in their great power rivalry. The notable feature is that each great power wants to push the other out without coming to Pakistan’s rescue. These are interestingly challenging times for Pakistan. The interesting part is for others and the challenge is for Pakistanis.
Last but not the least, there are no forces or political factors which can propel the break-up of the nation. On the contrary, all the elite vultures and other forces in Pakistan seem to want to rule over a dead donkey. If not for anything else, a dead donkey provides some meat even if it is putrefied. These are difficult times even for Pakistani vultures. We in India must understand that it is better to let that dead donkey alone rather than go near it and get infected.
I will end this article with an allegory duly plagiarised from a leading Pakistani daily. Whenever Pakistan found itself in a crisis it behaved like a frog. Dump a frog into boiling water. It will struggle, jump out and escape. That’s what Pakistan always did. It jumped out of all the crises it encountered. On the other hand, if you dump frog in intrepid water, it will exist happily there. As the water heats up gradually, the frog ignores the danger. The “creeping normality” of water slowly warming to a boil proves deadly for the frog. Pakistan now finds itself in a similar situation. The water is boiling and there is no escape route. The nuclear beggar can morph into a frog or a donkey. Its relevance will remain only that. India must be prepared to deal with one.
PS: As I am publishing this, there is a huge drama in Pakistan called “The Arrest of Imran Khan”. Some people also call it “An Attempt to snuff out Imran Khan”. Let us see which wins out.
Image source: ORF
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