Lebanon’s post-war era militia leaders became the political leadership and have kept a lock on power ever since. The country remains a nation without an effective governing dispensation. Pakistan seems to be going the same way!
Almost twenty years back and over a month after landing up in Lebanon as the Chief Humanitarian Officer of the UN Interim Force in 2001-02, I got a faint glimpse of how fractured and dysfunctional their society and the polity really was. The Indian Ambassador was hosting an ‘At Home’ on the eve of the Republic Day and it came to my notice that the Lebanese government would be represented by three ministers, one each for the President, the PM and the Speaker. Ipso facto, they would be representing Maronite Christians, Sunnis and Shias respectively as per the confessional system of governance arrangements that the country had adopted. It had just come out of decades of civil war between the largely Christian South Lebanon Army (SLA) and Iran-Syria backed Hezbollah, and Israeli occupation of Shia-dominated South Lebanon, south of the Litany River, from 1985-2000.
As part of my humanitarian projects, I would traverse the length and breadth of South Lebanon which curiously had its own President, apart from the President of Lebanon. The Hezbollah dominated the territory mostly, their ubiquitous yellow flags fluttering on the street poles and photos of martyrs staring at you. The militias use the cocaine and hashish drug trade as well as other “criminal enterprises” to fund their military ventures in Lebanon, while some of their funds do go to education and health assistance for the poor.
Lebanon as a state and its central bank went bankrupt in April 2022. Lebanon’s post-war era militia leaders became the political leadership riddled with corruption and mismanagement, and have kept a lock on power ever since. Yet Lebanon remains a nation state with allied entities and paraphernalia but without an effective governing dispensation. The militias and power brokers of all three dominant sects control their fiefdoms autonomously without having to discharge any responsibilities of a nation-state. As a result, over 82 per cent of the population now lives in poverty, according to the United Nations. Unemployment is estimated at 40 per cent. Beirut, once billed as the ‘Paris of the Middle East’, now stinks of uncollected garbage, its streets lined with beggars.
Understanding ‘Lebanisation’ is relevant to understand the dire situation in Pakistan. Forex reserves is less than $6 billion, barely enough to cover three weeks of import. The IMF bailout talks failed a week back over lack of economic reforms. Inflation is running at over 27.6 per cent but may spike further as the government has been forced to hike taxes on natural gas for household and industrial consumption from 16 per cent to 112 per cent. The exchange rate against the US dollar has gone from PKR 123 in August 2018 to PKR 275 now. Milk costs PKR 210/litre and petrol PKR 272. The economic meltdown is eerily similar to the happenings in Sri Lanka to some extent, the Chinese debt-trap as a result of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) mega infrastructure projects, low tax base and high army/security related spendings being common factors.
Where Pakistan differs from Sri Lanka is its Army which hold all the levers of power and patronage without attendant responsibilities of running a state. The CIA funded Talibanisation in the eighties to oust the Russians from neighbourhood Pakistan has had long term devastating effects. Crushingly and ignominiously defeated in 1971 Indo-Pak war which gave birth to the state of Bangladesh, it switched to running terror factories which churn out hordes of highly radicalised jihadis for deployment in Kashmir to keep India bleeding ‘with thousand cuts’ as a low-cost option.
The economic meltdown in Pakistan is eerily similar to the happenings in Sri Lanka to some extent, the Chinese debt-trap as a result of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) mega infrastructure projects, low tax base and high army/security related spendings being common factors.
Like the militias in Lebanon, the Army and army backed jihadi militias of Pakistan control a flourishing drug trade emanating from the poppy fields of Afghanistan which is estimated at over $25 billion annually. The political class are best at clamouring for each other’s throats rather than address the pressing issues staring at the country. This greatly suits the “Deep State’, the Army and its various tentacles like the ISI who gulp up over 50 per cent of the country’s budget. No wonder, out of frustration ex-PM Imran Khan recently called former Army Chief General Bajwa a ‘Super King’.
Will a crumbling Pakistan balkanise and break-up with Balochs, Sindis, the tribes of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan declaring independence and cede from a Punjabi dominated Pakistan? For some in India, that brings cheers, with fond hope that PoK will soon return to India without us having to fire a bullet. But such hopes may be illusionary and misplaced. China has invested heavily in the CPEC that runs through the Shaksgam Valley through Gilgit-Baltistan all the way to the Gwadar port in restive Baluchistan. It is vital to connecting Xinjiang Province in western China for boosting the trade with Europe and securing energy supplies from the Middle East. So, balkanisation is a fall-out that China can ill afford. Even internally, though Baluchistan and Sind have witnessed separatist movements for long, yet they do not have the appetite for running a functional state. Nor do the tribal warlords of Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Establishing a state entail running institutions and taking care of welfare of its citizens. It means ensuring law and order, something anathema to these belligerents that thrive in lawlessness.
Pakistan already runs a rentier economy, renting its strategic space to the US to wage its war against the Soviet Union in the eighties and against the Al Qaida and Taliban since 9/11 in its global war on terror (GWOT). The US has paid an estimated $33 billion between 2001-2016 towards compensation for providing security to its supply lines and operations. The Trump administration stopped this gravy train to flow but a renewal for other motives cannot be ruled out. The drawn-out IMF negotiations could be a ploy for some key leverage that the ‘Deep State’ within the US may be haggling for. Even its patrons in the Middle East like Saudi Arabia who may be funding its nuclear arsenal as a counter to the Iranian bomb would do all they can to prevent such an outcome. All said and done, balkanisation serves no one’s interest. A more plausible outcome is Lebanisation of Pakistan.