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Why Pakistanis Dare to Criticize their Army


Welcome to the South Asia Foreign Policy Letter.

Today: Pakistan's army chief faces a rare public admonition, a deadly one Air strike hits a school in Afghanistan, Bangladesh passes you by economic milestoneand how India defies conventional wisdom clean energy.

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Pakistan's unusual protests

Large protests are not uncommon in Pakistan. Only last year, Prime Minister Imran Khan survived large demonstrations calling for his resignation. Throughout Pakistan's history, protesters have regularly criticized various governments. But there is an unwritten rule: protesters can turn their anger on civilian leaders but should refrain from attacking the all-powerful military that has ruled Pakistan for nearly half its existence.

Last Thursday something changed in Pakistani politics. Speaking from London to an audience of tens of thousands in the Punjabi city of Gujranwala, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif not only attacked the current government but also highlighted the country's army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

"They rejected the people's election in the 2018 elections and installed an inefficient and incompetent group of people," said Sharif. "General Bajwa, you are responsible for inflated electricity bills, a lack of medicines and the suffering of poor people."

The criticism is exceptional on several levels. First, no mainstream politician had ever publicly criticized an army chief. Second, the allegations were made in front of an audience of tens of thousands. Third, the speech was heard and welcomed in Punjab, a traditional military stronghold. Although the event was not televised, the speech footage was widely shared on social media.

The protest movement. Sharif's speech was part of a larger event where several major opposition parties came together to demonstrate against Khan, including Sharif's Muslim League and the Pakistan Peoples Party – the party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto who was killed. The unlikely alliance called the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) held a second major protest in Karachi on Sunday.

The PDM argues that Khan did not win the country's 2018 election fairly and likes to say that the prime minister was elected by the army rather than the people. By attacking the military more directly, the alliance has increased the stakes in Pakistani politics.

What happens next? Although Pakistani prime ministers are frequently overthrown, they are more likely to fall into military coups than protest movements. "People greatly underestimate the power of prime ministerial power in Pakistan," said Mosharraf Zaidi, senior fellow at Tabadlab, a think tank in Islamabad. "As long as Khan has the support of the military, he is safe in his work."

But precedents don't count for much at the present moment. "The only thing that could really harm Imran Khan, until the military questions its support for him, would be a severe economic crisis," Zaidi said. And Pakistan's economy is indeed in dire straits, with rampant inflation, negative growth rates and billions in debt to international donors.

In the end, Khan's bigger problem may not be dissent, but the coronavirus pandemic and a tied global economy. After all, he has severely restricted fiscal instruments and international funding, at least for next year – not enough to reverse an economic crisis.

Coronavirus update. Overall, the eight South Asian countries have now registered about as many coronavirus cases as the United States – a little more than 8.6 million. However, the data only tells part of the story. While the United States tested 391 people per 1,000 citizens, India only tested 71 people. Bangladesh and Pakistan, the next largest countries in the region, tested only 13 and 18 people per 1,000 inhabitants, respectively.

Afghan attack. At least 12 people, including some children, were killed Wednesday after an Afghan military air strike against Taliban fighters hit a religious school in northeastern Takhar province. The Afghan military has opened an investigation into the fatal error. The tragedy comes amid heightened fighting between the Taliban and government forces, although US-brokered talks to end the war in Doha, Qatar, continue.

Rajapaksa's rise. As long expected, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa won a parliamentary vote on Thursday to restore full executive powers and weaken the role of the prime minister. Rajapaksa won 156 of 225 votes in parliament, exceeding the super-majority threshold required to amend the constitution. Other changes include giving Rajapaksa the power to appoint members of the Sri Lankan Electoral Commission and the Human Rights Commission – measures that are likely to give him uncontrolled powers.

2 + 2 dialogue between the USA and India. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper will travel to New Delhi next week to meet their Indian colleagues in what is known as the “2 + 2 dialogue”. China will be back at the top of the agenda. At a news conference earlier this week, Pompeo told reporters that he would "discuss how free nations can work together to thwart threats from the Chinese Communist Party."

Pompeo is also said to make stops in the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

Bangladesh's rise … or India's fall? Last week, when news broke that Bangladesh's GDP per capita had surpassed India's, "the Indian press was furious in a fit of fear, pointing and denial," wrote FP columnist Salvatore Babones.

However, this does not mean that India should follow Bangladesh's strategy of boosting exports through low-wage manufacturing jobs, as most Indian states do not have the same population structure as Bangladesh and have no crucial logistical skills and no port access. India must instead focus on economic reforms, such as the Agriculture Act announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government last month. See Babones' essay for more information.

Mark Harris Illustration for Foreign Policy

Clean Energy Surprise? Conventional wisdom has it that India is the problem child in any discussion about climate change. After all, it has 1.4 billion people with rising incomes and growing appetites for energy – meaning India is consuming more coal than the US and Japan combined.

While all of this is true, FP columnist Vivek Wadhwa points out that India's efforts to promote green energy are chronically underreported. He cites how New Delhi broke a record for the world's largest renewable energy tender this year, with several other clean energy projects being commissioned thanks to technological advances and lower solar installation costs. Don't you agree? Read Wadhwa's attitude.

That's it for this week.

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