Pakistan’s Year of Turmoil

In 2022, the country has seen a dramatic change in power, record-high inflation, and catastrophic floods. What could happen in 2023?

By , a senior editor at Foreign Policy.
People take boats to cross floodwaters in Pakistan.
People take boats to cross floodwaters in Pakistan.
People take boats to cross floodwaters in Johi, Pakistan, on Oct. 18. Getty Images

2022

Pakistan entered 2022 with a couple of bad omens: It was already reeling from the collapse of the regime next door in Afghanistan and the beginnings of an economic crisis. And the hits started coming quickly. The country has seen an uptick in terrorist attacks, beginning the year with a blast in Lahore that killed three people. The government has pointed fingers at the Taliban regime in Afghanistan for harboring militant groups, but domestic problems have a role to play.

On the economic front, Pakistan’s outlook seems dire as the year closes, with analysts fretting the country could end up like its regional neighbor Sri Lanka: unable to pay its debts, short on foreign reserves, and grappling with untenable, skyrocketing inflation. By November, its consumer price index sat at nearly 24 percent—after its central bank unexpectedly raised interest rates to slow down inflation. Pakistan is scheduled to repay more than $26 billion in foreign debt in fiscal year 2023.

Pakistan’s politics began to unravel too. Imran Khan, the former cricket star-turned-prime minister elected in 2018, came under pressure due to the economic crisis—and a burgeoning fallout with the country’s powerful military. The opposition filed a no-confidence motion against him in March; Khan then pushed the president to dissolve the National Assembly and hold elections, triggering a constitutional crisis. Ultimately, Khan became the first Pakistani prime minister to lose a no-confidence vote and Shehbaz Sharif was elected to succeed him by the same parliament on April 11.

Pakistan entered 2022 with a couple of bad omens: It was already reeling from the collapse of the regime next door in Afghanistan and the beginnings of an economic crisis. And the hits started coming quickly. The country has seen an uptick in terrorist attacks, beginning the year with a blast in Lahore that killed three people. The government has pointed fingers at the Taliban regime in Afghanistan for harboring militant groups, but domestic problems have a role to play.

On the economic front, Pakistan’s outlook seems dire as the year closes, with analysts fretting the country could end up like its regional neighbor Sri Lanka: unable to pay its debts, short on foreign reserves, and grappling with untenable, skyrocketing inflation. By November, its consumer price index sat at nearly 24 percent—after its central bank unexpectedly raised interest rates to slow down inflation. Pakistan is scheduled to repay more than $26 billion in foreign debt in fiscal year 2023.

Pakistan’s politics began to unravel too. Imran Khan, the former cricket star-turned-prime minister elected in 2018, came under pressure due to the economic crisis—and a burgeoning fallout with the country’s powerful military. The opposition filed a no-confidence motion against him in March; Khan then pushed the president to dissolve the National Assembly and hold elections, triggering a constitutional crisis. Ultimately, Khan became the first Pakistani prime minister to lose a no-confidence vote and Shehbaz Sharif was elected to succeed him by the same parliament on April 11.

However, Khan has not faded from view, instead reigniting support behind a movement to push the new government to call early elections—presenting a potential challenge to the military establishment. In November, he suffered an attempt on his life at a political rally and returned to the campaign trail two weeks later. In an interview with Foreign Policy the same month, Khan seemed determined to make a comeback. “So what will we do next, if I had a chance again? What I’ve been trying to do for 26 years—rule of law,” he said. “Whenever Pakistan’s economic revival will start, it will have to start with establishing rule of law.”

A climate catastrophe struck with the monsoon season, as heavy rains and glacial runoff combined to submerge large swaths of Pakistan’s south. The floods displaced millions of people and destroyed agricultural livelihoods, causing as much as $40 billion in damage that Pakistan cannot afford. In the weeks afterward, Pakistani leaders pleaded for international assistance and led developing countries at the annual United Nations climate change summit (known as COP27) in a call for “loss and damage” funding for those on the front lines of the climate crisis.

So what comes next? The military remains under pressure from homegrown militancy. Debts are coming due. Pakistan is one of many countries set for a 2023 general election, sometime between August and October, so its political drama has certainly not reached its zenith. And ordinary citizens are already bracing for another season of climate extremes.

Here are five Foreign Policy stories that seek to explain Pakistan’s year of crisis—and what awaits the country in the new year.


1. Pakistan Faces ‘Peace of Wolves’ as Regional Tensions Rise

by Lynne O’Donnell, Feb. 22

In February 2022, separatist militants carried out simultaneous attacks against two Pakistan Army outposts in remote Balochistan province, killing 13 soldiers. The assault reflected a resurgence in domestic terrorism that has not let up in the months since. Islamabad blames the Taliban regime that took power in Kabul in August 2021 for sheltering terrorist groups that undermine its own security, especially the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which escalated its attacks this year in the country’s northwest.

The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban certainly had ripple effects in Pakistan, but it faces further pressure from within—and its powerful military is the target. “Pakistan’s woes aren’t just due to the fall of the Afghan republic,” FP’s Lynne O’Donnell reports from Islamabad. “Domestic militant threats are expected to intensify amid a toxic cocktail of economic deprivation, social marginalization, heavy-handed security, ethnic nationalism, and tribalism.”

O’Donnell’s report in February now seems like a clear signal of what was to come. Amid stop-and-start talks with the TTP, the Pakistani military sought to strengthen its presence to contain the militant threat, according to her sources—but it remained hamstrung by Pakistan’s economic crisis. In November, the TTP called off a cease-fire agreed in June with Islamabad, threatening to expand their attacks to the rest of the country in the months ahead.


2. Will Pakistan’s Inflation Crisis Bring Down Imran Khan?

by Hajira Maryam, March 25

Khan’s fall from power in April in part came down to the economy. When Pakistan’s parliamentary opposition called its no-confidence vote, it picked up a dozen defectors from his party who were dissatisfied with his handling of the economy. His supporters may have seen the ongoing crisis as reflecting a broken campaign promise: In 2018, Khan pledged to “make the country’s economy work for the poor,” Pakistani journalist Hajira Maryam writes. “Four years later, … citizens are struggling to make ends meet.”

Extreme inflation that plagued Pakistan at the end of last year reached new extremes in 2022, hitting a two-year peak to the start the year. That gave the political opposition a chance to oust Khan. “So-called middle-class poverty is on the rise, squeezing the average wage earner and deteriorating standards of living. The surging prices are pushing many people to the brink,” Maryam writes. That’s not to mention Pakistan’s ballooning sovereign debt, which had exceeded $250 billion by August.

Khan is out, but Pakistan’s economic crisis has kept spiraling under Sharif’s government, which Maryam pointed out seemed to lack a plan to confront the challenge from the start. “Even if Khan is ousted in the coming days, it won’t resolve the crisis facing Pakistan’s people,” she writes. “Whoever holds power in Pakistan inherits a dysfunctional economic model, and the current opposition’s only apparent agenda is the removal of Khan.”


3. Imran Khan’s Revolution

by Azeem Ibrahim, Aug. 24

Imran Khan gestures toward an unseen crowd as he stands in front of a screen showing an enlarged photo of his face.
Imran Khan gestures toward an unseen crowd as he stands in front of a screen showing an enlarged photo of his face.

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks at an event in Islamabad on June 22.AAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images

Khan’s removal from office only seemed to embolden him. He immediately espoused a conspiracy theory that the United States had interfered to push him out. He has repeatedly demanded early elections. And he has criticized the powerful military establishment and the judicial system, breaking political taboos. In August, Khan was charged with terrorism offenses for threatening police officers and a judge. (A high court later dropped the charges.)

In the wake of those charges, FP’s Azeem Ibrahim argues that the mass support Khan garnered could mark a turning point in Pakistani politics. “What many dismiss as sour grapes may actually mark the beginning of something new: the creation of a popular mass democratic movement in Pakistan, the first one in the 75 years since the Partition of India and founding of the state,” he writes.

Khan’s approach also reflects his break with Pakistan’s military, which supported his rise to power—and which continues to dominate the country’s politics from behind the scenes. The military assumed Khan “would follow the unspoken rules of politics and know when he was beaten,” Ibrahim writes. “But as Khan’s rhetoric in opposition grows loftier—taking aim at the corruption of elections, parliamentary politics, the economy, and state institutions as well as the nature of military rule—the generals clearly see something new and worrisome on the horizon.”


4. Pakistan’s Next Superflood Is Coming. The Cavalry Isn’t.

by Fatima Bhojani, Sept. 15

Amid economic and political turmoil, Pakistan suffered a climate disaster. In June, unusually heavy monsoon rains arrived, combining with glacial melt to inundate flood-prone areas and cause rivers to overflow their banks. By September, one-third of the country was underwater, millions of farmers had lost a season of crops, and Islamabad was asking for urgent assistance. The crisis seemed unprecedented—yet it was Pakistan’s second superflood since 2010, Pakistani journalist Fatima Bhojani points out.

“The simple fact is that even the most ambitious targets of climate campaigners may be too warm for Pakistan’s comfort,” she writes. The country is on the front lines of the climate crisis, and disasters like this year’s floods are exacerbated by poor infrastructure and social inequalities. Despite Pakistan’s relatively small contribution to global emissions, “it has become among the most vulnerable countries to even slight increases in temperatures,” Bhojani writes.

Sharif invoked the floods when he spoke at COP27 in November, leading developing countries in a call for climate justice that addresses the disparities between vulnerable populations and the world’s biggest emitters. The West must step up, Bhojani writes: Back in Pakistan, people are already bracing for the “next cataclysm.” “We’ve just sat through Act 1 of a play nobody wanted to watch. There are more acts to follow.”


5. Pakistan’s Military Is Here to Stay

by Husain Haqqani, Oct. 20 

In October, Khan announced his second “long march” from Lahore to Islamabad, continuing to call for early elections even as he faced new charges for violating political fundraising laws. Amid these developments, Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, argued that Khan’s challenge to the military establishment can only go so far. “Pakistani politics have always revolved around the country’s military,” he wrote. “Khan’s polarizing rhetoric is only adding to Pakistan’s chaos—not marking the advent of a revolution.”

Haqqani argued that in Pakistan, political success ultimately depends on the military’s blessing. “Pakistan has had popular leaders who challenged the military’s dominance on politics and policy before,” he wrote. “They did not succeed in weakening this stranglehold—and Khan’s chances are no better.” His renewed popularity with a disenchanted base may have rankled the generals, but the former prime minister is unlikely to divide the military or dismantle the system.

Of this, Haqqani is certain: “As Khan and others nurtured by Pakistan’s military establishment turn against it, some might be tempted to write the obituary of military dominance in the country’s politics,” he added. “As someone who has advocated and fought for the supremacy of civilian rule and constitutional democracy in Pakistan for decades, I am not sure Khan’s agitation will truly change how Pakistan functions.”

Audrey Wilson is a senior editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @audreybwilson

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