Is Pakistan a Failing State?

Adnan Qaiser on Pakistan's downward spiral.
By: /
December 17, 2013
Is Pakistan Failing State

Culture and ethos define nations’ destinies.

Pakistan often claims to be a victim of its history and geography. While the country’s failure to produce leadership with the vision and acumen to steer the nation onto a politically stable path is rarely seen as something within the nation’s power to change, change Pakistan must, if it hopes to deviate from its present destructive course. Ruled alternately by military generals and politicians, today Pakistan stands at a crossroads, confronted by a host of internal problems and external challenges, just as it did in August 1947 at the time of its birth.

While Pakistan remains a country of great geo-political and geo-strategic significance, it has been crumbling steadily under the weight of its own conflicts and contradictions ever since the loss of East Pakistan in 1971. The international community is increasingly worried that if this national security state of 180 million people continues down a path defined by insecurity and extremism, it will eventually implode, not only destabilizing the region but also undermining global security.

The Institute for Economics and Peace has ranked Pakistan as the 5th most violent nation in the world. Authorities on the country, such as the Brooking Institute’s Stephen Cohen, believe Pakistan to be “in a terminal decline”. Foreseeing its “failure in five or six years”, Cohen considers Pakistan to be “a deeply troubled state”.

Locked in acrimonious relations with its strategic backyard, Pakistan is preparing once again to dominate Afghanistan after the departure of NATO forces owing to its influential ties to Pashtun Mujahedeen and the Taliban. Having secretly sanctioned U.S. drone attacks in its tribal areas, Pakistan’s transactional relationship with the United States is tightening up as a result of growing American criticism and condemnation - various U.S. lawmakers have declared Pakistan to be an "adversary" and a "black hole for American aid".

Some say that the world powers would never let the country with the seventh largest army and the fifth largest nuclear arsenal collapse.

Some say that the world powers would never let the country with the seventh largest army and the fifth largest nuclear arsenal collapse. But these observers forget that there was once a Soviet Union with nuclear capability; the superpower still eventually split apart and its weapons were dismantled under the ‘Cooperative Threat Reduction Regime’ (CTR).

Should Pakistan fail, however, it would likely be far more disruptive, in large part because the nature of Pakistani nationalism has changed. Radical forms of ‘political Islam’ have edged into the lives of ordinary people and into affairs of state. Notions and expressions of Islamic rage, honour, and religious intolerance have been incorporated, creating a maelstrom of extremism, militancy and sectarianism. A recent PEW research survey finds 84% Pakistanis favour governance by Sharia law – a telling indicator of the increasing radicalization of mainstream Pakistani society. 

Pakistan’s increasingly virulent nationalism worries many international observers, including U.S. President Obama, who at last year’s NATO Summit in Chicago declared that “United States did not want Pakistan to be consumed by its own extremism”.

Pakistan’s over 20,000 madrassas (religious seminaries) continue to fuel militancy as reported on numerous occasions by the New York Times and others. Inculcating and inciting the spirit of jihad among children as young as five, madrassas have been rightly denounced by numerous international observers, including Colin Powell, who as early as 2004 pointed to these seminaries as the breeding grounds of “fundamentalists and terrorists”.

The turn toward extremism is exacerbated by the Shia-Sunni killings that began in 1980s and continue today with even greater ferocity. In 2012, 202 sectarian attacks left 537 dead and 772 injured. Earlier this year, the deaths of over 250 Shias and Hazaras in three major attacks forced the government to impose Governor Rule in Baluchistan. Despite banning 29 sectarian and jihadist outfits and placing 1,764 people on its ‘wanted list’ in 2002, successive governments have largely maintained a blind eye to sectarian violence, allowing militants to continue with their business as usual. The right-wing Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), which has a soft spot for the extremists, has even been doing seat-adjustments with the sectarian groups during elections.

The alignment of the Punjabi Taliban with tribal militants to form Pakistan’s bête noire, the vicious Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TPP) in December 2007 and their indoctrination into Al-Qaeda’s philosophy has also made terrorist attacks more lethal. The concepts of ‘Khuruj’ (revolt against deviant Muslim rulers) and ‘Takfir’ (expulsion of heretic rulers from Islam) in order to establish Edarat-ul-Wahash (governance in wilderness and the ‘management of savagery’) and turn ‘Ibnul Balad’ (sons of soil) into blood brothers are inspiring militants to fight with renewed fervour.

However, despite the loss of over 49,000 innocent lives since 2001, with 2,050 killed and 3,822 injured in 1,577 terrorist attacks last year alone, the Pakistani nation stands divided and confused on the issue of terrorism. The majority of the population appears to be suffering from ‘Stockholm Syndrome’, referring to the militants as their ‘wayward children’. Only a minority of saner voices view them correctly as an existential threat.

The army’s low morale and lack of conviction in what has been largely seen as an ‘American war’ on the militants has led to the signing of a number of peace deals with the militants, providing them with vital time, space and compensation to consolidate their losses and regroup. In January of this year, the army redirected  its military doctrine to focus on terrorism rather than India after eight years characterized by what the Carnegie Endowment has called “conflicted goals and compromised performance”. Having suffered several setbacks in its ‘War on Terror’ related military operations, over a hundred of which were carried out in 2012 – the army now erroneously believes that terrorism will come to an end as NATO forces depart from Afghanistan. Besides showing military’s naivety such a mindset also demonstrates army’s incapacity; a secret report of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government’s Home and Tribal Affairs Department admits that on the contrary, Pakistan’s “miseries will begin with the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.”

In what has become a collective national denial of reality, politicians and religious leaders also support negotiations with the militant groups, fearing the threat they pose to Pakistan’s democracy. So far eight All Parties Conferences (APC) and Joint Parliamentary Resolutions have unanimously proposed holding unconditional talks with the Pakistani Taliban. The resolution adopted in the last APC held in September was largely seen as a ‘document of surrender’ for being quiet on talks to be held within the ambit of the Constitution of Pakistan, ironically identifying the terrorists as “stakeholders”.

Today’s politically rudderless Pakistan is the result of sham democracy in action. Feudal landlords, tribal Sardars (chieftains) and some of the 15 richest families of Pakistan continue to concentrate power in their own hands. Denying land reforms that would curtail and tax their large agricultural holdings, these elites control state institutions, as they have since the colonial era. Pick any large land-owning family and you are likely to find its members scattered throughout the ruling and opposing political parties, changing their loyalties as required to protect their privileged position.

To secure the perpetuation of their dynastic politics, these wealthy political elites have recently adopted a ‘friendly opposition’ strategy, signing a ‘Charter of Democracy’ with each other while also seeking to leverage expedient constitutional amendments. They also managed to have all criminal cases launched against them, including all corruption and money laundering charges, dropped in the name of ‘national reconciliation’. Despite the Supreme Court overturning this notorious ordinance, successive governments have refused to hold their fellow politicians accountable for their actions.

Unsurprisingly, the bankruptcy of the democratic system is leading to the alienation of the younger generation from state institutions. A recent British Council survey of 18 to 29 year olds found youth in Pakistan to be “insecure, pessimistic and conservative”, with 38% favouring Sharia law and 32% preferring martial law.

Conflicts over identity and ideology, ethnicity, and social inequality are driving wedges throughout society. Torn between competing visions of the future, country has yet to decide whether its destiny is to become a theocratic state based on its Islamic roots and origin, or emerge as a forward-looking modern nation. ‘A state built without a nation, with a nation that never adopted the state,’ Pakistan’s ills can be traced back to its broken social structure and flawed political system.

Only in a country like Pakistan does one find tribal militants declaring an Islamic Emirate of Waziristan while Sindhi nationalists play the Sindh Card and threaten secession for Sindhu-Desh, Baluch Sardars struggle for Free Baluchistan, Pashtun leaders dream about Greater Pashtunistan, Punjabis keep their jingoism alive with Jaag Punjabi Jaag (Wake-up Punjab), and Mohajir (migrants), not to be left behind, continue to threaten break away with maps already demarcated for Jinnahpur.

The army is all that has been holding the state, fractured by deep ethnic fissures, together. But the weakness of the state and corresponding strength of the military is also responsible for the persistent civil-military discord in the country. Over time the insidious corrupt ineptitude of politicians has forced the military establishment to assume the role of ‘guardian of the nation’, running the country through ‘guided or controlled democracy’.

The army has been blamed for instituting martial law and indirectly removing four civilian governments from office four times, but there is little consensus over whether their guardian role is imperative. The debate as to “What is sacrosanct: the state or the constitution” continues, deepening the so-called ‘Khaki-Mufti divide’ and sustaining the civil-military imbalance. The present government’s decision to try Pakistan’s last military dictator, President General Pervez Musharraf, under Article 6 for treason and subverting the constitution is likely to strain civil-military relations further. While the politicians try to preserve the constitution that serves them so well, the military establishment remains preoccupied with protecting the sovereignty and integrity of the country, but often at the cost of human rights violations and abuse of power.

This dynamic is playing out in the current (fifth) Baluchistan insurgency, where even the middle class has taken up arms due to continued political neglect, economic deprivation and the military’s heavy handedness. Forced disappearances and extra-judicial killings continue, and the number of tortured and mutilated bodies found on the roadsides is growing – the result of a deadly game called ‘kill and dump’.

Despite having signed a 36-month IMF bailout package of US$6.7 billion (ironically, to pay back old debt), the threat of economic meltdown looms large. The State Bank’s reserves fell to barely US$3.85 billion on November 21st and payments on external liabilities are growing larger every day. Inflation has already reached double-digits and the rupee is in freefall, making markets nervous and triggering capital flight. In a startling disclosure to the Parliament in October, the governor of the State Bank admitted that US$25 million is being smuggled out of the country every day. GDP remains below 3%, capital inflows have dried up and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) has plunged to its lowest level of US$1.5 billion in 2013. And the IMF has warned that even slower economic growth is still to come due to the strict monetary reforms aimed at stopping the economic downslide.

Due to an acute energy shortage, people are forced to live without electricity for 10 to 12 hours a day with hardly any natural gas for cooking and heating purposes. The loan that the last civilian government borrowed exceeded the total amount of debt that Pakistan owes (accumulated over the past 60 years), bringing its total public debt to an astounding 14 trillion rupees (approx. US$140 billion) by the end of fiscal year 2013.

All state run enterprises are either technically bankrupt or on the verge of collapse, incurring losses in the millions every day.

All state run enterprises are either technically bankrupt or on the verge of collapse, incurring losses in the millions every day. The government’s decision to privatise 31 public sector enterprises however promises to open a floodgate of unemployment and misery for the people who will inevitably be let go because of downsizing but lack any kind of social safety net to fall back on.

The World Economic Forum has relegated Pakistan to 133rd among 148 countries in its latest Global Competitiveness Index, released in September. Transparency International last year placed Pakistan 139th out of 157 most corrupt countries in the world which is in sync with its former head of National Accountability Bureau’s (NAB) acknowledgement that Pakistan loses 5 to 7 billion rupees (US$51 to $72 million) every day due to inefficiency, corruption and tax-evasion.

Economic hardships are undoubtedly part of the reason for the rise in heinous crimes throughout the country. 3.1 million criminal cases have been reported over the past five years, including an astounding 90,000 kidnappings, some 16,000 rapes and gang-rapes of women, and close to 200,000 vehicular crimes, worth 85 billion rupees (US$850 million approximately). Pakistan also suffers from an unbelievable number of street crimes on an hourly basis, ranging from the looting of banks and petrol stations to highway and armed robberies to murders.

Ranked the 4th riskiest country in the Human Rights Risk Atlas (HRRA) released this month, the people of Pakistan have witnessed and been subjected to 8,648 human rights abuses in the past 15 months alone – abuses which include acid attacks on women, people being set on fire, sexual assaults, police abuses, prison inmates being exposed to infectious diseases, and violence against women and children. In 2011, there were 943 honour killings for illicit relations and 595 for demanding to marry someone of one’s own choice.

Karachi, Pakistan’s financial hub has not been spared from everyday targeted killings – finding tortured bodies inside sacks along the roadsides has become a regular phenomenon. On top of such brutal killings, the residents of Karachi are harassed into paying nearly US$83 million every day via extortion, kidnapping, parking mafias, black water markets and protection money in what is called the ‘Kala (black) Budget’. 

The war for control of the city among gangs and mafias of organized crime and political and religious militants has made at least eight localities into ‘no go areas’ for police. The targeted operation that the government started in September has already lost steam. 150 of the police officers who took part in early ‘clean-up operations’ were killed – 93 in 1992 and 57 in 1996 – so it is little surprise that police morale is low. All told, Karachi’s violence claimed 2,286 lives last year and 2,058 people have already been killed so far this year (November and December excluded).

Such statistics are more than sufficient to demonstrate how dismal life is for most in Pakistan’s lawless and near-anarchic society, but there are additional indicators of how important it is for the country to find a way to return to even semi-normalcy.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of the Pakistani nation, wanted to see Pakistan as a liberal country. However, his religious ideologue successors used Islam as a political tool, making Pakistan a ‘lynch mob nation’, where innocent Hindu girls can be kidnapped and forcibly converted to Islam before being married off to Muslim boys. Christians also continue to be persecuted through the abuse of the Blasphemy Law. There have been 13 major attacks on Christian communities between 2002 and 2013, with lives lost as houses and churches were torched. When their houses are burned down, the faith of Christians in their country and its people also turn to ashes. Anybody who tries to even bring procedural changes to the Blasphemy Law is killed like Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who was shot 27 times by his own bodyguard in January 2011 and later became glorified in the masses. His murder, together with the broad daylight assassination of Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti in March same year, is enough to capture the ugly state of minorities’ persecution in Pakistan.

When we step back and consider the economic mess, sectarian and ethnic violence, crime, and religious persecution tearing Pakistan apart, it is not surprising that the country is ranked 146th out of 157 countries by United Nations’ Human Development Index.

When we step back and consider the economic mess, sectarian and ethnic violence, crime, and religious persecution tearing Pakistan apart, it is not surprising that the country is ranked 146th out of 157 countries by United Nations’ Human Development Index. It’s an irony that in a nuclear armed Pakistan having more than 100 nuclear warheads with world’s most advanced ballistic missile technology half of the population live below poverty line and the government has made some of the world’s lowest investments in health and education. The world has some sense that the country is trapped in a downward spiral – Foreign Policy magazine has also ranked Pakistan 13th on its list of failing states – but there is still little appreciation of the extent to which the rule of law has disintegrated.

When French President Charles de Gaulle wrote to Israeli Prime Minister Ben Gurion that while historical states like France and Britain were destined to live forever, the survival of non-historical states depends upon the wisdom of their leaders, he might have also thought of Pakistan. For when states lose their rationale, they also lose their right to survive.

Nations survive and thrive through change. To emerge as a strong and stable country from this dark period, Pakistan’s leaders need to induce a dramatic change in their own and the country’s outlook rather than wait for change to be forced upon them, when it will be too late to salvage the nation.

For too long the international community has coddled Pakistani leaders, discouraging reform. Living off foreign aid and assistance has made this country a rentier state, led by elites grown accustomed to free lunches. Now is the time for the world to demand critical reforms like the International Development Committee of British House of Commons proposed in April of this year but then to let Pakistan’s leaders do the hard work. Meaningful land, economic and social-justice reforms must be introduced and state institutions must be set free from the political influence of wealthy elites who believe they have a legitimate right to behave corruptly after coming into power. If such reforms do not take place, Pakistan will continue failing and remain, as observed by General James Jones, former U.S. National Security Advisor, “hell bent on self-destruction”.

It’s decision time for Pakistan. Because we know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road – they get run over.

This article is based on a talk the author delivered to the Montreal Branch of the Canadian International Council.