The speed at which events are moving in Pakistan makes it an extremely hazardous task to predict the future course of events in that country. Be that as it may, the outlook for Pakistan in the year 2012 is rather negative. All available indications suggest that diplomatically Pakistan will face greater isolation; economically, it will teeter on the edge of the precipice of sovereign default in its external obligations and might even go over; politically, debilitating instability will continue to rock the ship of the state; socially and culturally, there is likely to be even greater regression with political Islamism making major inroads; and militarily, there is a real possibility of severe tension, if not an outbreak of hostilities, with NATO forces in Afghanistan.
If 2011 has been an annus horribilis for US-Pakistan relations, what with the Raymond Davis affair, the Abottabad raid to kill Osama bin Laden, the bombing of the Pakistan army posts in Mohmand agency and the accusations hurled by the former US Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen who called the Haqqani terror network a ‘veritable arm of the ISI’, 2012 is unlikely to fare much better. While efforts will be made to at least have a workable, even if purely transactional, relationship, the competing and contradictory objectives and policies of the two countries in Afghanistan are likely to push them into a state of conflict with each other.
Given that 2012 is an election year in the US, coupled with the possibility of 2012 becoming an election year in Pakistan as well, domestic politics in both countries will play a major role in how they handle their bilateral relations. There are broadly two possibilities insofar as the US policy towards Pakistan is concerned: first, the administration will start taking a much tougher line with Pakistan to buttress its national security credentials. This means that the US will start to turn the screws – diplomatic, economic and even military – to force Pakistan into compliance; alternatively, the administration may try to avoid precipitating matters and continue harbouring fond hopes of changing Pakistan's malevolence on the one hand by sweet-talking the Pakistanis, and on the other keep the aid drip trickling in. But given that this approach has not delivered over the last ten years, chances of it working in the future are very dim.
A conflict between the two countries, therefore, seems unavoidable, unless of course the Americans decide to throw in the towel and accede to all of Pakistan's demands on Afghanistan. After the NATO bombing of the Pakistani posts in Mohmand agency, a hair-trigger like situation prevails along the Pak-Afghan border. This means that even an accidental incident involving an exchange of fire between the ISAF and Pakistan army could easily snowball into a major conflagration. There is also a real possibility of the NATO forces launching deliberate attacks inside Pakistan in response to a major terrorist attack inside Afghanistan, or even in the US homeland. Any premeditated outbreak of hostilities between the US and Pakistan is more likely to occur around the middle of the year i.e. closer to US elections. This is also the traditional season for military campaigns.
As relations between US and Pakistan deteriorate, peace overtures by Pakistan to the Pakistani Taliban will gather pace. This will increase the tensions between US and Pakistan, especially if the Islamist terror groups based in Pakistan ramp up their attacks on the international coalition forces in Afghanistan. The impact of peace deals with the Pakistani Taliban on Pakistan's social and cultural milieu will be quite severe and will further radicalise the Pakistani society and polity. Worse, it will create space for radical Islamic groups in the domain of mainstream politics. This space will also be exploited by other radical groups (i.e. those aligned with the Pakistani state) like the Lashkar-e-Taiba to garner more political and military strength. At the same time, to balance the political inroads made by the Deobandi and Salafi radical groups, the Pakistani state will patronise the growth of Barelvi radical groups like the Sunni Ittehad Council. Efforts will also be made by mainstream Islamist parties to revive their alliance – MMA. If the Barelvi mullahs join a future MMA, the Islamists could re-emerge as a potent political force. But if the Barelvi Mullahs decide to plough an independent political path (either for ideological and doctrinal reasons or on the instructions of the ‘establishment’), then the potency of an alliance of religious parties could be limited.
The economic crisis in Pakistan is likely to deepen, and with it the political and social unrest in the country. Global recession is bound to impact on Pakistan’s export earnings. The international perception of Pakistan as a sponsor of terrorism will have an adverse impact on foreign assistance. The security situation and political unrest will exacerbate the economic crisis. Domestic and foreign investment flows will reduce to a trickle, thereby impacting on growth. High international oil prices will worsen the energy crisis, and power outages and gas shortages will grow. Unemployment will rise and inflation will remain in double figures raising economic distress to unbearable levels. With debt repayments due from March 2012, Pakistan is likely to confront a very serious Balance of Payments crisis. The IMF will impose conditionalities that will confront the government with a Hobson’s choice: if they implement the conditions, it could lead to massive civil unrest, not to mention the enormous political price that will have to be paid in an election year; if they don’t, then the IMF could refuse to bail out the economy, thereby pushing it towards a sovereign default.
2012 promises to be a tumultuous year for Pakistani politics. The army’s control over the government will increase and the civilian government will be reduced to a rubber-stamp, a virtual cipher. If the PPP government survives until the Senate elections due in March, then chances are that general elections could be held between June and October 2012. The front runners in the next general election are Nawaz Sharif’s PMLN and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf. The army is however extremely uncomfortable at the prospect of Nawaz Sharif becoming Prime Minister and it considers Imran Khan a bit of a maverick (and an untested one at that). Both Nawaz and Imran are likely to resist the army’s interference in politics and policy making. But the next in line – Shahbaz Sharif in PMLN and Shah Mehmood Qureshi in PTI – are entirely acceptable to the army. There is therefore a strong possibility of 2012 being the year of political assassinations. Whichever of the two parties – PMLN or PTI – finds favour with the ‘establishment’, the top leaders of these parties – Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan – are unlikely to head the next government. While an assassination could tilt the election result in favour of one of the two parties, neither is expected to get a simple majority in the National Assembly. A hung parliament will, on the one hand, suit the army which can manipulate the political scene by playing one against the other, but on the other hand will result in administrative dysfunction and political paralysis that will only drag the country down further. If the Senate elections are held on schedule under the current dispensation, the PPP will end up controlling the Senate which will give the ‘establishment’ an additional lever of control over any coalition government headed by either PTI or PMLN.
President Asif Zardari is likely to be forced out of office, by hook or by crook. If Zardari is ousted before the Senate elections, then the fate of parliament (whether it is dissolved or not) will depend on whether or not generals elections are possible before March 12 (the scheduled date of Senate polls). If elections can be held before this date, the parliament will be dissolved. If not, then Parliament (and Prime Minister Gilani) will survive until the Senate polls and general elections will be held anytime between June and October 2012. If parliament is dissolved and Zardari is ousted, Chairman of the Senate Farooq Naek will become acting President and a caretaker government of technocrats will be formed. Depending on the economic, political, diplomatic and military situation, this government could either hold elections within the stipulated three month period or else it could be given an extended mandate by the Supreme Court to continue for a longer period to put things back in order – the ‘Bangladesh model’ with the ‘minus-one’ formula (i.e. getting rid of Asif Zardari) thrown in.
No big breakthroughs are expected in Indo-Pak relations. Both countries will however go through the paces of a dialogue. While there could be some forward movement on the trade front, there is a strong possibility of progress on this front being stymied by domestic political compulsions and the opposition of the Islamists. Pakistan will try to ensure that no big incident of terrorism a la 26/11 takes place because, with the Western border heating up, it will like to avoid raising tensions on the Eastern front with India. But to keep India unsettled, the pot of terrorism will be kept boiling. The only difference is that instead of using Pakistani terrorists to create trouble, Pakistan will use Indians to carry out terrorist attacks inside India so that even if something goes horribly wrong, plausible deniability can be maintained.