CONVERSATION: Pakistan’s Days of Extracting Geopolitical Rent are Over. What Next?

IRSHAD SALIM — A recent article in Dawn opines that “Pakistan has immense latent capabilities…but its ruling elite must wake up to new realities –it has thrived on foreign largess…(but) the current generation of this class is blind to how the geopolitical sands have shifted under their feet.” The well-written piece further states that…”the country’s elite are insistent on staying firmly in place, no matter the consequences.”

A Pakistani defense and security analyst who regularly interacts with me with astute observations agrees with the article’s posit: “rent-seeking feeds the current status quo forces.” In his view, “a political change at home is perquisite for the shift to take place.” My two cents is that a sustainable political development which can spark, create, and then harness common imagination of the nation (younger generation) would do the magic. I do agree with him that “otherwise we will keep bending our back to keep the taps running;” In his view, which I also tend to agree, “the efforts of current coalition government to secure an IMF bailout is testament to this inertia.”

A geopolitical and security analyst who has authored several books and based in Asia Pacific says that “since its advent, first as a British dominion in 1947, and then as a republic in 1956, Pakistan’s potential has far exceeded its reality as a polity and as an economy,” despite having ‘exorbitant privileges’ amid ‘prisoner of geography’ status –over decades, this has drawn quite a bit of traffic though (like the intersection sans 4-way-stop signs video clip below:

Oscar and myself once n a while visualize our comments and observations rather than typing them and share. He shared this in 2020 while discussing Pakistan’s opportunities and challenges vis-a-vis locale and strategic.position.

That the country’s potential has far exceeded its reality as a polity and as an economy is not a feature unique to Pakistan, says the Asia Pacific analyst. “Indeed, many, if not most post-colonial successor states betray an inability to overcome the exigencies of the moment so as to focus on mid-to-long term national goals and then pursue these to completion,” he says.

Social scientists, in his view, have over the past seven-and-a-half decades, examined key cause-and-effect linkages. “So, there are no astounding secrets to be dug up and presented as a miracle cure.” History tells us, according to him, that “foreign policy is both a mirror to and a function of domestic politics.”

Therefore, “Pakistan needs to build the capacity to not only remain relevant to global and regional geopolitical trends, but also benefit from the fleeting geoeconomic opportunities,” Syed Muhammad Ali, a security expert based in Islamabad tells me.

However, a relatively small elite initially comprising “brown sahibs” drawn mainly from the colonial permanent bureaucracies, acquired state-authority from feudally-inclined political classes, whose interests seemed more rooted in sustaining political-economic control than in national development, the analyst based in Malaysia adds.

It’s been 70 years now using this template as a comforter. It smells. At what cost though and in what time span the status quo needs a change of heart and a new template with boiler-plate mechanism requires collective national awakening, leadership grit and leap of faith by the thought leaders, amid their daily book-keeping rituals.

Here’s one reason according to the analyst, “narrow partisan and regionalist focus detracted from state-consolidation and generated an over-emphasis on the external other as the conceptual fulcrum and organizing principle around which to build the state. This led to a garrison-state construct exploiting great-power polarization, externalizing most threat perceptions with a parallel effort to externally balance an apparently, but only partly real, existential challenge in the neighborhood.”

He observes that the disjuncture between the parallel visions -one of a confessionally defined national identity, the other of a modern, pluralist, representative republic -was never addressed, far less resolved by the elite. The gap between survival and prosperity was muddled through by extracting patron-client rent with the great power-patrons tiring after a while.”

“Geography is an endowment from God almighty for Pakistan. However, it would require innovation to benefit from God’s gift,” says Amb. G R Baloch, an analyst, columnist and a foreign affairs observer.

However, domestic political challenges have been thrown up by elite failures at state consolidation. “It continues to dog Pakistan, and patch-work politics and diplomacy may not offer meaningful resolution,” says the author and analyst based in Asia Pacific. “So, the crisis of nation-building persists”, he says.

I agree with him, but with a caveat: It’s NOT just about economy as many say. In my view, housekeeping remains the denominator where change is the constant numerator. That geopolitical change is in the horizon; it’s a wake up call as the article in Dawn alludes to.