Supporters of Imran Khan's PTI party protesting against the Pakistani government in Islamabad in September 2014. © Niaz Ali/ Demotix

Pakistan has survived—now can it prosper?

The country has endured terrorism and political crises. To flourish, it may have to throw its lot in with China. But Britain can help
September 16, 2015

The most important thing by far about Pakistan may seem so obvious as to be scarcely worth remarking. Yet it defies the predictions of several leading “experts” on Pakistan (both Pakistani and western) over the past four decades: Pakistan is still there.

In the Arab world, states have fallen in rows as a result of their own internal divisions, western invasion and a combination of the two. Afghanistan may well be going the same way. The supposedly most important and reliable allies of the United States are stagnant dictatorships. Meanwhile, in its own chaotic and deeply flawed way, Pakistan (and Pakistani democracy) continues to trundle on. The reasons for this are worth pondering—the factors that have made Pakistan resilient in the face of Islamist rebellion and recurrent economic and political crisis are often the flip side of those which are holding back the country’s socio-economic development, possibly dooming it in the longer term.

In 2014, the population of Pakistan was 185.1m. By the middle of this century, the World Bank predicts that the population will have reached 350m (making it by then the fifth most populous country in the world). It has comparatively well-equipped armed forces comprising more than 500,000 men, and nearly 200 nuclear weapons. The collapse of a state of this size and importance would dwarf even the present disasters in the Middle East, and quite possibly destroy the international order.

The conclusions that we—or, much more importantly, the US—need to draw from this are twofold. First, while our ability to help Pakistan may be very limited, we should at least not make its position worse—even if Pakistani behaviour sometimes seems to invite a harsh response. Second, we cannot afford to ignore Pakistan, because if we do that, we risk, as after 9/11, being confronted by a crisis we cannot understand or deal with because we are ignorant of its background.

In Britain, we will need to think about the condition of Pakistan as long as both countries continue to exist. Because of the large and ever-growing Pakistani diaspora in Britain (1.2m and 2 per cent of the population according to the 2011 census, up from 747,000 or 1.4 per cent in 2001), we are intimately linked to Pakistan and developments there, in a way that we never were to Afghanistan. The high levels of intermarriage between Pakistani families in Britain and their relatives in Pakistan mean that the closeness of this link is not diminishing over time.

Concerning neighbouring Afghanistan, the British establishment, like the west in general, is developing a remarkable capacity for amnesia—not surprisingly given the extent of Britain’s failure there, and the shameful ignorance and incompetence that contributed to this failure. As I found when visiting Kabul in June, many western news organisations have left the country. And most western officials have either left or else stay hidden in fortified compounds which they never leave and from which it is impossible either to understand or to influence developments in the country. These changes include, on the one hand, major gains by the Taliban in recent weeks and, on the other, acknowledgment of the death of their former leader Mullah Omar, which has led to serious splits within the Taliban. It is in Britain’s interests not to allow this to be the case in Pakistan. Pakistan is a rare case where Britain’s desire to play an important role on the world stage both has some reality and serves a useful purpose. The closeness of Britain’s links to Pakistan allows it to play a valuable and independent role in influencing the relationship between the US and Pakistan, and indeed in recent years Washington has encouraged London to do so.

This may be especially important given the growth of Chinese influence in Pakistan, leading to the risk that the country will yet again be drawn into a new cold war in Asia, though this time on the opposite side from the US. Earlier this year, China signed an agreement with Pakistan promising $46bn for the development of a corridor of transport and energy infrastructure (intended to link western China to the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf)—some three times total US aid to Pakistan since 2001.

Tension between the US and Pakistan has diminished over the past couple of years: as American troops have withdrawn from Afghanistan, the number of them being killed by Taliban based in Pakistani territory has gone down. Washington has also come round, in principle, to the need for some form of peace settlement between the Kabul government and the Taliban, which has been Pakistan’s position from the start. The rise of Islamic State (IS) in the Middle East has both distracted the US from the Taliban and confronted it with a much more dangerous international threat. Under the leadership of Mullah Mansur, the Taliban are even seen by some observers as potential allies against IS, which has taken root in Afghanistan through its appeal to hardline Taliban military commanders who reject any idea of a compromise peace.

The improvement in US-Pakistani relations is welcome, but a great danger remains, perhaps the biggest danger facing Pakistan in the short term. This is that a major terrorist attack on American soil by a Pakistani-based terrorist group will drive the US to make demands of Pakistan (for example, extradition of Islamist militant leaders to India) that would split the army and bring much of the population behind the Islamists. Barring nuclear war with India, this is perhaps the only scenario that could destroy Pakistan in an afternoon. A deep awareness of this threat on the Pakistani side means that its intelligence services have worked closely with the CIA and British intelligence to identify and arrest Pakistanis from the diaspora who may be plotting terrorist attacks in the west. That does not mean, of course, that such attacks can be prevented forever.

Mass support for the Islamists in the circumstances of intolerable US demands just described would come not from conversion to their religious ideology, but from their appeal to outraged Pakistani nationalism. This force is ambiguous and often hard to understand, but at certain moments and in certain contexts it assumes great significance. Despite much hysterical commentary in the west and in Pakistan itself, there never was any real chance of Islamist militants seizing power on the strength of their ideology alone. Because that ideology is rooted in a highly specific and radical version of Sunni Islamic theology, it is rejected even by Pakistanis from other branches of Sunnism. Despite gains by the Pakistani Taliban in Punjab, outright rebellion since 9/11 has occurred overwhelmingly in the Pashtun areas of the country, and been closely linked to developments in Afghanistan. Even the mainstream Islamist religious parties, with their attachment to the broader Deobandi school of Sunni thought, have only very rarely been able to gain more than 5 per cent of the vote in free elections. The prestige enjoyed by Lashkar-e-Taiba and its sister organisation Jamaat-ud-Dawa derives not from their Wahabi-linked religious theology, but their effective social work and their role in what is seen by most Pakistanis as a legitimate national struggle against India in Kashmir.

In Iraq too, Al-Qaeda and then IS were only able to make significant gains because the US and Britain first destroyed the Iraqi state and then empowered a Shia hegemony which was seen as a collective threat by much of the Sunni Arab population. Indeed, a very large part of IS’s formidable military power and expertise is drawn from former officers and non-commissioned officers of the Ba’ath Iraqi army destroyed by the US—a force which in its day was secular, nationalist and anti-Islamist.

Just as Pakistan is too divided ethnically and religiously to support an effective state-building nationalism, so it is too divided to support an Islamist revolution. If, through an upsurge of outrage with the US and a split in the army, the Islamists did manage to seize control of Islamabad and overthrow the state, the result would not be the creation of a caliphate like that of IS, but the disintegration of Pakistan into a dozen or more local civil wars on a vastly larger scale than anything seen in, say, Lebanon or Libya.

The other key reason for the relative weakness of the Islamists in Pakistan is that compared to the ruthless secret police tyrannies in the Middle East, Pakistan has always been more democratic and weaker, even during periods of military dictatorship. It has also been ruled by relatively narrow military and civilian elites who, while often bitterly at odds with each other, have worked to defend their interests, and have not plumbed the depths of savagery seen in the Middle East, if only on the principle that dog does not eat dog.

While Pakistani democracy has only very rarely led to serious or sustained reform, it has at least provided a safety-valve for popular discontent. You may not be able to change the social and economic system and the next lot in government may not be much better, but at least you have the satisfaction of throwing the existing bunch of governing bastards out—and, crucially, getting rid of the government without destroying the entire state in the process. This safety valve has been wholly lacking in the Middle East. Not only has there been no electoral safety valve there, but in most cases the identity of government and state has been absolute.

Unlike in Iraq, Syria, Egypt or Libya, Islamist parties have been free to take part in elections ever since Pakistan was created, and have very often participated in government. In the process they have become just as compromised in the eyes of the population as most of the other parties, and have lost the glamour of persecution and exclusion which has done so much over the years to cement the Islamists’ links to the poor and excluded sections of society elsewhere.

On the one hand, this has driven many of the younger and more militant followers of mainstream Islamist parties—the Jamaat Islami (JI) and Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI)—into the arms of the Pakistani Taliban. At the same time, these mainstream parties’ links to the establishment and their grip on electoral politics makes it much more difficult for the militants to emerge as a serious national force. In recent years, the mass protest vote in Pakistani elections has gone not to the Islamists but to Imran Khan’s Pakistan Justice Party (PTI). While he has used anti-American Pakistani nationalism to appeal to some of the same constituency as the Islamists, Khan, the former national cricket star, does not in any way share their religious ideology.

The other crucial aspect of an electoral tradition, of course, is that it allows a change of government, even military government, without this involving the overthrow of the entire state apparatus, as has been the case in most of the Middle East. Several years before the Arab Spring, in 2007-08, the military government of General Pervez Musharraf fell in the face of popular protest. The government was replaced after elections held under the terms of the existing constitution. In trying to preserve his regime Musharraf used only a tiny fraction of the force employed by dictators in the Middle East.

At the same time, the menacing territorial gains made by the Pakistani Taliban and their allies in 2007-09 were possible only because of the regime change that took place during this period, and the inevitable loss of governmental authority that accompanied it. By the spring of 2009, awareness had grown in both the military and civilian leadership of the extent of the threat posed by the Pakistani Taliban. The result was a series of military offensives in subsequent years which deprived the Taliban of the bulk of the territoriy they used to control and drove many of them across the border into Afghanistan, where they have forged an alliance with IS. The Taliban remain a very serious terrorist threat to Pakistan (and, albeit to a much lesser extent, to Britain and the US), but they are no longer a significant insurgent force, unlike their counterparts in Afghanistan, IS in Syria and Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen.

However, the state’s counter-offensive against the Pakistani Taliban was hampered and delayed by three factors. The first of these has been extensively commented upon in the west, the second partially covered and the third largely ignored. The first was the unwillingness of the Pakistani military to extend the campaign to parts of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas where the Afghan Taliban and their allies in the Haqqani network have bases. These have still tended to be seen by the Pakistani military as potential allies in a future Afghan civil war in which India would be on the other side. The second factor has been divisions between the military high command and the two civilian governments since 2008 (the first led by Asif Zardari of the Pakistan People’s Party from 2008 to 2013 and the second by Nawaz Sharif of the Muslim League since 2013), with both sides frequently seeking to blame the other for failures in the struggle with the Pakistani Taliban.

The third, and most significant, factor has been the scepticism harboured by most of Pakistan’s population towards the struggle against the Pakistani Taliban. Even after a succession of terrorist attacks targeting civilians as well as the military and police, a majority of the Pakistanis I interviewed continued to oppose operations against them on the grounds that the atrocities had not been carried out by the “real” Taliban, but by agents of India or the US.

Behind all this lies widespread public hostility to the US and to American behaviour in the Muslim world. The US and western presence in Afghanistan after 2001 was seen by most Pakistanis as a military occupation directly comparable to the previous Soviet one. This hostility is reflected in the belief, held by the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis in Pakistan and in the diaspora in Britain with whom I have spoken, that 9/11 was a CIA-Israeli plot. This hostility to the US does not incline most Pakistanis to support the Pakistani Taliban, but for a long while it did make them sympathetic to the Afghan Taliban. And the fact that the struggle against Islamic militancy at home has taken place in the wider context of the US’s “war on terror” has greatly weakened mass support for it.

Over the past year or so, however, this picture has changed dramatically, and for the better. The victorious parties in the 2013 elections (Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League at the centre and in Punjab, and Imran Khan’s PTI in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the Pashtun-inhabited province bordering Afghanistan, formerly known as North-West Frontier Province) were both elected on a platform of negotiating with the Pakistani Taliban.

However, the peace process was eventually blocked by the army, who, as I described in a previous report of mine for Prospect, were determined to carry on the fight against the militants.

Any possibility of compromise with the Pakistani Taliban evaporated in December 2014 when they murdered 132 children at the Army Public School in Peshawar, the worst atrocity of its kind since the 2004 Beslan terrorist attack in the Russian North Caucasus. This led to an intensified and extremely ruthless military campaign against the remaining Pakistani Taliban areas, accompanied by intense pressure on the political parties and the Pakistani media to support the campaign. The massacre also led to a wave of popular revulsion against the Pakistani Taliban. When I visited Peshawar in May, I found that public support for peace talks had dropped precipitously.

The military has also attempted to restore basic order in Karachi, leading to howls of protest from the various ethnically-based parties in the city. And in recent months the government and military have begun to crack down on Sunni sectarian groups linked to the Pakistani Taliban who allegedly have backing from Saudi sources and have carried out repeated terrorist attacks on Pakistani Shia in recent years.

The struggle with the Pakistani Taliban, which to date has cost the lives of almost 6,300 soldiers and police and more than 20,000 civilians, has also led to a more limited but still significant shift in attitudes towards the Afghan Taliban, and to growing support for a limited peace settlement with that group. This change in Pakistani attitudes, and the appearance of IS in Afghanistan as a threat to the Taliban, offers for the first time real potential for a successful peace process with at least a significant part of the Taliban there.

In the short and medium term, therefore, the situation in Pakistan is considerably better than most western (and many Pakistani) commentators have assumed. But in the long term nothing can be guaranteed. This is because the defeat of insurgency and the restoration of basic order has not been accompanied by the kind of economic and social reform which is essential for progress and the stabilisation of the state in the long run.

Despite limited moves in certain areas, especially education, where Britain’s Department for International Development has played a useful supporting role, the current Pakistan Muslim League—North (PMLN) government backing Nawaz Sharif has been a disappointment. This is despite the party having extensive business support and a reasonably good record of management (unlike the Pakistan People’s Party of the Bhutto-Zardari dynasty, whose key supporters have been “feudal” landowners). It turns out that the Punjabi business classes that support the PMLN are not really interested in radical reform, even of a pro-business kind.

In the first place, any such programme would have to involve forcing the elites—including businessmen—to pay some taxes to support energy and infrastructure development. Crucially, however, key business families have developed a cosy relationship of patronage and protection with successive Pakistani governments which limits their growth but protects them from competition. Imran Khan’s PTI, for its part, has so far had a relatively good record of government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, but it is questionable whether it can break the PMLN’s stranglehold on Punjab and win power nationally.

It is also possible that the sheer scale of Chinese aid will kick-start the Pakistani economy, and that in return for this aid, China will insist on serious improvements in Pakistani governance.

Chinese businesspeople I have spoken to have expressed distrust, bordering on contempt, for Pakistan as a place to invest. Such help as the Chinese offer in the future may come at a heavy price—geopolitical alignment with China and even the restoration of military rule (always favoured by Beijing) in Pakistan itself.

Without effective pressure from outside, however, it remains doubtful that the Pakistani ruling elites—civilian and military—will be able to ensure the kind of development that will secure the country’s long-term future. Contrary to so many predictions, the Pakistani state has survived its travails of recent years—and that is a good thing, since the collapse of the Pakistani state would be a nightmare both for its own people and for the world. Whether that state can progress and prosper is a very different question. If any outside force is to play a crucial positive role in helping Pakistani development, it will be China. But Britain can and should also do its bit.