Pakistan may be fragile, but it has just transitioned from one democratically elected government to another. In today’s Questions and Answers session, Chatham House’s Gareth Price explores how the Sharif government can build on this momentum by mitigating domestic sources of instability.ISN: Pakistan is widely regarded as a fragile state, teetering on the brink of outright failure. Is this an accurate portrayal of the country?
Gareth Price: Pakistan is often described as a fragile, or even a failed state. But while it has many systemic and structural problems – in the areas of security and governance, for instance – this narrative is an oversimplification. In many ways, Pakistani people and the Pakistani state are resilient. Historically, the weakness of civilian governments has been used to justify military rule, with the military frequently being seen as Pakistan’s most resilient institution. But the previous government – while weak – completed a full term. Civilian institutions will only be strengthened gradually over time. And while the long-standing perception in Pakistan that India, rather than internal militancy, is the country’s existential threat lends further support for military rule, that perception too seems to be gradually changing.
Nevertheless, it is clear that Pakistan faces other threats. The failure to resolve power struggles between the civilian government, the military and the judiciary does little to deepen public support for any of the ruling institutions. At the same time, if Nawaz Sharif is to be successful he faces a significant challenge in reviving Pakistan‘s stagnating economy.
Many of these predictions are related to Islamabad’s continued struggle to control its restive tribal regions situated on the border with Afghanistan. But is this the only source of state fragility in Pakistan?
The ongoing battle with militants in Pakistan’s tribal regions has undoubtedly added to instability in Pakistan. However, what is being felt far more across the country is a broader breakdown of law and order, a rise in criminality, increased ethnic violence (notably in Karachi), and suicide bombings and targeted sectarian killings (particularly in Baluchistan).
Military operations in the North West and tribal regions of Pakistan led to an exodus of millions of Pathans from their homes to Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and economic hub. Many of them have stayed despite calls for them to return to their homes in the north. Karachi is now home to the second largest Pathan population outside of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
Over the years this has upset the ethnic balance in Karachi which was already unable to absorb the millions of people emigrating to the city from rural areas in search of jobs and better livelihoods as well as those who moved as a result of displacement because of natural disasters such as the Kashmir earthquake and the 2010 floods. Over the past six years Karachi‘s population has risen by 1 million inhabitants every year. This has led the Pathan population into direct conflict with the city‘s existing inhabitants, principally the Muhajirs (immigrants from India at Independence) and the local Sindhi population. Each group supports different political parties which have run various types of protection rackets in the city.
Quetta, a city that has been home to Afghan refugees since the 1970s, has also turned into a battleground of sectarian violence with regular attacks against the Shia Hazara community. Religious minorities, including the Christian, Hindu and Bohra communities, have also come under attack while many advocates for a secular, tolerant Pakistan, such as Punjab’s former governor, Salman Taseer, have been killed. In addition, the power struggle between the civilian government and the military continues to be an underlying cause of instability in Pakistan. The military has controlled much of Pakistan’s foreign policy, particularly concerning India, Afghanistan and the United States. If Sharif chooses to push for greater involvement in these policies, this could lead to tension with the military.
Stimulating economic growth, reducing inflation and a mass job creation program would relieve some of the pressure, but Pakistan’s energy shortages have crippled local industries. Providing energy security in Pakistan is a critical issue that needs to be addressed urgently. This will require Pakistan to engage its allies, such as China, to invest in major power projects.
Separatism and ethnic division are recurring themes across South Asia and, as the recent upsurge of separatist activity in Balochistan suggests, Pakistan is no exception. How have these internal cleavages and questions of identity shaped Pakistani politics? Why has the project of national identity been so much more difficult here than compared to multicultural India?
India, which has not been without ethnic and religious tension, has by and large been able to draw upon a long-standing history; states have existed covering much of what is now India for thousands of years. Further, the Indian state continued roughly intact post-Independence, with a central government in Delhi, as well as state and district administrations.
Pakistan, in contrast, was a more artificial construct, initially comprising West Pakistan (now Pakistan) and East Pakistan (since 1971 Bangladesh). Its two wings were separated by a hostile India. At the same time, it lacked the central government infrastructure that continued to operate in India. To make matters worse, the country lost its founding leader, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, just a year after it was created in August 1947 which left its identity as a nation more fluid.
Pakistan is also not linguistically unified, with only 8% of the population regarding Urdu as their first language. Because Pakistan was created for the Muslim minority of India, religion became the natural unifying adhesive. However, over time, it is a more specific Sunni Islam, influenced by Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia, alongside the heavy funding of madrassas, that has come to symbolize Pakistan’s identity. Additionally, given the tribal, ethnic and feudal structures that underpin Pakistani society, individuals more often than not identify first with their specific ethnic group before any other identity.
Nawaz Sharif’s recent electoral victory marked the first transition from one elected government to another in Pakistan’s history. How confident are you that this is now going to become a regular feature of the country’s domestic politics?
The longer that civilian governments rule Pakistan, the less likely the military will be to take power. But Pakistan has only had five years so far. After 30 years maybe we should be confident. In the short-term much will depend on what Nawaz Sharif has learned during his time in exile. His rule in the 1990s was self-serving and antagonistic; few were sad when General Musharraf ousted him. His words thus far have been conciliatory and positive – in terms of economic planning, and in relation to India. But more important will be his actions. His decision to press ahead with a prosecution of the former president, Pervez Musharraf, does not bode well for civil-military relations. And while some form of compromise over Musharraf remains possible, his decision to prioritize this issue could lead to tension with the army. More recently, Sharif has stressed that resolving Pakistan’s energy crisis is to be his priority; if he can deliver on this then the outlook for Pakistan will significantly improve.
Many changes are on the horizon, however. Later this year Pakistan will have a new army chief and a new chief justice. Depending on what choices are made, this may either lead to tension between the three institutions or result in a more stable situation. If Nawaz Sharif is able to improve relations with India this will be positive for Pakistan and will demonstrate that the military is happy to cede control of India policy to the civilian government. But if Sharif pushes too hard, no one should discount the possibility of the military responding.
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