Pakistan’s Fragile Foundations

Pakistan’s Fragile Foundations

Beset by increased terror attacks and political infighting, Pakistan’s viability as a state is a matter of increasing concern. Experts call for reforming weak civil institutions, resolving ethnic disputes, and checking the power of the military.

March 11, 2009 4:40 pm (EST)

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Pakistan’s struggles to suppress rising militant violence have prompted a number of experts to call for the government--with help from international partners--to address the country’s long-standing structural flaws. Among the main recommendations: greater political rights for provinces; socioeconomic equality for various ethnic groups; and a diminution of the military’s dominant role. While most experts say there is no fear of a breakup of the country, the government’s ability to rule is increasingly being questioned. Pointing to the country’s deteriorating law-and-order situation, CFR Senior Fellow Daniel Markey warns of a "gradual decay" of the state’s capacity to govern.

A Weak State

Alternating between strong military rulers and weak civilian governments, Pakistan has failed to develop healthy political institutions, a lasting democracy, an impartial judiciary, or a thriving economy. Since its birth in August 1947, Pakistan has grappled with an acute sense of insecurity in the midst of a continuing identity crisis, writes Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistan analyst, in the 2008 book Descent into Chaos. "Pakistan’s inability to forge a national identity has led to an intensification of ethnic, linguistic, and regional nationalism, which has splintered and fragmented the country," he argues. The most dramatic example of this splintering occurred in 1971 when the government’s failure to address the needs of the ethnic Bengali community led to East Pakistan becoming the independent nation of Bangladesh.

In several instances, Pakistan’s courts and judges have found it expedient or necessary to accommodate constitutional changes or unconstitutional maneuvers by Pakistan’s leaders. Political parties, though large in number, continue to be dominated by the country’s traditional elite, and have frequently been accused of massive corruption.

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Race and Ethnicity


Pakistan’s current ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, wrote in The Washington Quarterly in 2005 (while a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) that Pakistan’s political factions have often found it difficult to cooperate with one another or to submit to the rule of law. As a result, he argued, "Pakistan is far from developing a consistent [form] of government, with persisting political polarization (PDF) along three major, intersecting fault lines: between civilians and the military, among different ethnic and provincial groups, and between Islamists and secularists."

Civil-Military Relations

Relations between Pakistan’s military and civilian governments have always been tenuous. Successive military coups have weakened political institutions. On the other hand, corrupt civilian governments have repeatedly provided the rationale for military coups, in which generals offered order in the midst of chaos.

"Some of the interprovincial disputes have weakened the nation of Pakistan" -- CFR’s Daniel Markey

Military intelligence agencies, such as the ISI, have also played a highly controversial role, frequently blamed for meddling in the country’s domestic politics. Frederick Grare of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace writes that all of Pakistan’s military governments, and some civilian governments, like that of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s, have used the intelligence agencies (PDF) for political purposes. Civilian governments have also been victims of the agencies’ manipulations in the past.

The Promise of Provincial Autonomy


Pakistan is divided into four provinces: Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan, and North West Frontier Province. In addition, there are the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), along the border with Afghanistan; the Federally Administered Northern Areas (Gilgit and Baltistan); and Pakistan-administered Kashmir (which Pakistan calls Azad Kashmir), on the border with India. Historically, the dominant role played by Punjab, which is home to over 55 percent of the population and provides the bulk of the army and bureaucracy, has caused much resentment among the other three provinces, say experts. Rashid writes: "Punjab [Province] never accepted Pakistan as a multi-ethnic state necessitating equal political rights, greater autonomy for the smaller provinces, and a more equitable distribution of funds."

Pakistan’s constitution provides for the distribution of legislative power between the center and the provinces. However, neither military nor civilian governments have ever really implemented provincial autonomy. In 2000, Pakistan’s military government under Pervez Musharraf launched a campaign aimed at transferring administrative and financial power to local governments. But a 2004 report by the International Crisis Group argued political devolution, in fact, "has proved little more than a cover for further centralized control."

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Race and Ethnicity


Interactive Map: Pakistan’s Troubled Tribal Belt Islamabad has always had limited writ in the autonomous tribal areas in the northwest, and the undetermined status of the Federally Administered Northern Areas, the northernmost area of the country, has fostered an unstable region. But the country’s army and the military intelligence agency, the ISI, supported numerous militant groups to first fight in Afghanistan against the Soviets, and then later fight Indian forces in Kashmir, further destabilizing the country. These groups continue to run camps in the FATA, the Northern Areas, and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, among other places, and are now increasingly turning on their creators.

Grievances of the Provinces

Rights over natural resources have remained at the center of demands for provincial autonomy. The country’s four provinces continue to fight over the distribution of revenues from natural resources, and the construction of large dams for electricity and irrigation, writes Markey in an August 2008 Council Special Report. One long-standing dispute is over water. Sindh Province claims Punjab violated the pre-independence agreement the two provinces had for the distribution of waters by constructing new irrigation networks. The proposed construction of dams on the Indus River, the main source of water in the country, has also prompted anger from the three smaller provinces, which are concerned about the environmental impact as well as a pro-Punjab bias in the water allocations.

Ownership of natural resources and distribution of revenues from oil and gas resources in energy-starved Pakistan are other factors feeding tensions, especially in Sindh and Balochistan Provinces. The proposed privatization of Qadirpur Gas Field in Sindh in 2008 prompted protests from employees of the national gas company and opposition parties, resulting in suspension of the plan until a national consensus was reached. Similarly, Balochistan has demanded greater job opportunities for the region’s population at the newly constructed Gwadar port as well as greater revenue in royalties from the use of its natural resources.

Though Balochistan accounts for more than one-third of Pakistan’s total gas production, it is the poorest province in the country, with over 40 percent of residents living below the poverty line. Also, it receives only about one-fifth as much in royalty payments as the other gas-producing provinces, writes Robert G. Wirsing of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in an April 2008 paper (PDF).

Crisis Guide: Pakistan "Some of the interprovincial disputes have weakened the nation of Pakistan," says CFR’s Markey, because "the politics are divided along those lines." Pakistan’s major parties are divided along regional or ethnic lines. The ruling Pakistan People’s Party is powerful in Sindh, the major opposition Pakistan’s Muslim League (N) is influential in Punjab, while the Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party leads in North West Frontier Province. This means a lack of political parties that can respond to national level concerns, says Markey.

Ethnic Nationalism

Pakistan’s 170 million people are divided into six main ethnic groups; Punjabi (44.7 percent), Pashtun (15.4 percent), Sindhi (14.1 percent), Siraiki (8.4 percent), Muhajirs (7.6 percent), and Balochi (3.6 percent). In his 2006 book The Idea of Pakistan, Stephen P. Cohen of the Brookings Institution lists the various nationalist movements among Pakistan’s different ethnic groups. "Some of these groups are entangled in mutual enmity," he writes, noting all of them have a different relationship with the dominant Punjab Province.

Balochistan has seen multiple, usually ethnically driven, insurgency movements since 1948, and the Pakistani state has often used brutal military force to suppress them.  In recent times, these insurgencies have been driven by political and economic marginalization. The ethnic Pashtun-dominated Taliban is also active throughout Balochistan, particularly in the city of Quetta. Quetta is most likely the place Osama bin Laden and Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar are hiding, according to some analysts. Some U.S. military officials suspect this leadership guides the insurgency in southern Afghanistan, and delivers guns and militants to fight U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Islam, the State, and Sectarian Conflicts

Created as a homeland for Indian Muslims in August 1947, Pakistan grappled with the question of its identity even before it was formed--whether to be a secular democratic country for Muslims and other religious minorities or an Islamic state. Pakistan’s Muslim population is divided into Sunni (85 percent) and Shia (12 percent), and is also home to smaller sects such as the Ismailis, the followers of Aga Khan. However, Cohen, in The Idea of Pakistan, notes "most Pakistanis in rural areas remain vague about their Islam, and their religion is strongly intermixed with folk practices, Sufi beliefs, and even Hinduism and Buddhism."

"Pakistan’s inability to forge a national identity has led to an intensification of ethnic, linguistic, and regional nationalism, which has splintered and fragmented the country." -- Ahmed Rashid

Experts say rising secular conflict in Pakistan is a consequence of decades of Islamization and the marginalization of secular democratic forces. Establishing Islam as the state ideology was a device aimed at defining a Pakistani identity (PDF) during the country’s formative years, wrote Haqqani. This gained momentum during military ruler Zia ul-Haq’s regime in late 1970s, and successive military governments have Islamized laws, education, and culture, and coopted and patronized religious parties to counter their civilian opposition. Both civilian and military Pakistani governments have allowed religious extremist organizations to flourish. For instance, the military supported and armed Islamist militants fighting Indian rule in the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir and backed the Taliban in its pursuit of a client regime in Afghanistan.

The focus on building an ideological state has caused Pakistan to lag behind in almost all areas that define a functional modern state, Haqqani wrote in 2005. The political use of Islam by the state "promotes an aggressive competition for official patronage between and within the many variations of Sunni and Shia Islam, with the clerical elites of major sects and subsects striving to build up their political parties, raise jihadi militias, [and] expand [madrassa] networks," said a 2005 International Crisis Group report.

The political disenfranchisement of regions like the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in the northwest and the Federally Administered Northern Areas in the northeast have turned them into sanctuaries for sectarian and international terrorists, and centers of arms and drug trade, according to the 2005 ICG report. The Northern Areas, once a part of Jammu and Kashmir, is the only Shia-majority region in Sunni-majority Pakistan. It is not accorded official status in Pakistan’s constitution, nor is it represented in the parliament. The military, the dominant voice on Kashmir policy, is resistant to granting autonomy to the Northern Areas, tying the region’s constitutional status and the issue of political rights to the resolution of the Kashmir dispute with India.

Rising Poverty

Pakistan spends only about 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on education and 0.5 percent of GDP on health. As a result, its human development indicators are quite low; the country ranks 139 out of 179 countries on the United Nations Development Program’s 2008 Human Development Index. Until recently, Pakistan was experiencing economic growth of over 6 percent each year. This growth has increased disparities between regions and between rural and urban areas.

Pakistan’s feudal system, which deprives large numbers of people from owning land, is another contributor to poverty. In a paper (PDF) published by the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, Pakistani experts note the poverty level is highest among landless households.  Seventy-five percent of households own no land in the country. The paper recommends a broad-based land reform program, including land redistribution, fair and enforceable tenancy contracts, rural public works programs, and access to credit.

Tackling poverty is also essential to defeating rising extremism in the country; some experts say poor governance has allowed madrassas teaching Wahabbism--an orthodox form of Sunni Islam similar to that practiced in Saudi Arabia--to flourish in Pakistan. These religious schools continue to provide recruits to the Taliban and other militant groups inside Pakistan.

Policy Implications

Experts say Pakistan needs to undertake a wide range of reforms, among them more equitable land distribution; devolution of administrative, political, and financial responsibilities to the provinces; and increasing investment in education and health.

A 2009 report (PDF) by a U.S.-based think tank, the Atlantic Council, lays out a host of recommendations on how the United States can help bolster Pakistan’s political, social, and economic institutions. These include U.S. social and economic support to Pakistan’s provincial administrations; the creation of reconstruction opportunity zones inside Pakistan; and partnerships between individual  U.S. states and Pakistan’s four provinces. Some of these recommendations are echoed in pending congressional legislation that proposes to triple U.S. nonmilitary aid to Pakistan, and to grant $7.5 billion over five years for development projects.


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