After years of slow decay, states that are nearing doom see a tipping point and a point of no return when their descent into the abyss hastens and is hard to stop. It then often takes an external effort to extricate them from the pits of doom. We may well be the only large state facing all recent security and economic pathways to doom, with the exception of Liberia with its warlord politics. How far are we from each tipping point, and can we change course before the point of no return?
The gravest security pathway is the scenario of nuclear conflict. Escalatory steps may come from Islamist militancy in India, which pins the blame on us and retaliates through an air or even land attack. Another sub-path is an attack by India on Pakistan-administered kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, as threatened by BJP hawks recently. This could escalate to a level where tactical nuclear arms are deployed in response. No two nuclear states have fought yet, but there is always a first time to new mania. Extremist sway by the BJP and hawkish elements in the security establishment here may increase risks reduced by recent Financial Action Task Force action on us. But civilian sway will cut the risks for us and secular sway for India.
Another grim security pathway is internal extremist conflict, which ruined Somalia and Syria with large areas falling to the extremists. The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan too seized former Fata and Swat in 2007 and were 100 km from leafy Islamabad, sending panic waves among its cocky elites. Army action cut the risk, but the Afghan Taliban’s Kabul win has upped it again. It may increase slowly over the years as our numbers cross 300 million and huge climate change impact and a slow economy lead to more dislocation, crises and extremism by 2050, a century after independence. Giving the youth a modern education and jobs will cut this risk. It may still be many years away but is our scariest internal risk.
Extremists aim to capture whole states; ethnic groups aim to secede with a part, as with Sudan, Yugoslavia and us too in 1971. We have already tread two security doom pathways and partly even the third one with non-nuclear combat with our easterly nemesis. Our ethnic Achilles heel is now Balochistan. Baloch rebels lack the capacity to secede soon or even hold much area but have made some areas no-go and can now stage big attacks beyond home. Apathy towards justified Baloch complaints will only up the risk.
Economically, one path is the Soviet one: the Soviet Union fell after decades of de-growth due to misrule and military outlays. We, too, have both. We haven’t yet seen long de-growth except once under the tabdeeli brigade due to Covid-19, but may in the long run as its two causes persist.
Another economic path is hyperinflation, as in Zimbabwe. I saw the country in 2009 in the grips of million per cent inflation, with prices doubling every day and a US dollar fetching 50 trillion local ones in Harare streets. Loose monetary and fiscal policy creating wage-price vicious circles caused it. Our usually cheery central bank glumly told us recently those circles are emerging.
A last economic pathway is currency collapse, as in East Asia in 1998 due to external deficits. The private sector took short-term foreign loans for long-term work that gave no dollar earning. A scare in one state made foreign lenders pull loans regionally, causing currency collapses. We have had external deficits for decades but now take bigger foreign loans for works with no dollar earnings, though mainly less panicky state-to-state ones. But any souring ties with big lenders may mean default.
Among the six, the nuclear war risk may be low, but that of the last two interlinked economic pathways is high. We may only be a couple of years from the tipping point as new economic risks like wage-price spirals and foreign loans for local works increase. Economic doom doesn’t cause the gory violence of security doom. Yet it causes silent, covert violence that hurts the poor badly via local disease, crime and abuse. The ways to avoid all six are very well known for long and need no repetition. But how to get our uncaring and insular twin-cities elites to adopt them is a puzzle stumping even the wisest in this stricken land.
There is another puzzle too. Why do we alone apparently face so many pathways to doom? Oddly, the indications are that the starting points of all the paths converge in the garrison city of Pindi. Living a stone’s throw away from them, I keep blithely ignoring the sane advice of sages that people living in weak glass houses must not throw (verbal) stones, as only change in the establishment’s views will shut our scary pathways to doom. May we all stay safe from its retaliatory wrath.
This article first appeared in Dawn.