While some argue that Pakistan is simply ‘muddling through’ its multitude of political, security, economic, and social crises, alarmists talk of Pakistan’s impending ‘state failure’ or a return to military dictatorship.
In 2013, Pakistan ranked 13th on the Fund for Peace’s (FFP) annual Failed States Index — most of its indicators having worsened or remained constant. The FFP categorises Pakistan as a ‘high alert’ country, in the same company as Iraq and Afghanistan. Pakistan fares particularly poorly when it comes to ‘group grievance’ (ethnic and sectarian violence), ‘security apparatus’ (militancy, military coups, bombings), and ‘external intervention’ (this includes the presence of foreign aid and peacekeepers).
Pakistan’s democracy is weak, in part because the military has deprived Pakistani citizens of the opportunity to participate in a democratic society. Throughout its 66-year history, Pakistan has oscillated between military rule and civilian government. General Ayub Khan seized power in 1958, only 11 years after Pakistan’s independence, and to date Pakistan has been ruled by the military for almost half of its existence. This political environment has allowed either civilian autocracy or military rule to flourish. Elections in 2013 were notable because — for the first time in Pakistan’s history — a democratically elected government replaced another after the Pakistan People’s Party, headed by President Asif Ali Zardari, became the first government in the nation’s history to complete a full term.
Elections were a positive step, but is Pakistan’s democratic path sustainable? It may slide back towards civilian autocracy or military rule. Much of this depends on the current government, led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and its ability to arrest growing insecurity and economic malaise — two factors that heavily influence state stability. Given that he has been prime minister twice before, Sharif has a better shot than most, even though both of his previous governments ended at the hands of the military: his second ousting was at the hands of Pervez Musharraf in 1999.
After winning the election Sharif pledged to improve the security situation in Pakistan, but after almost a year little progress has been made. Thus far, the government has been unable to translate its security policy rhetoric into results on the ground. The security forces, including the police, lack the capacity (and at times the willingness) to uniformly enforce the law across the country. Nowhere is this more evident than in the complete absence of the rule of law in large tracts of the country, alarmingly in Karachi as well as tribal areas.
Insecurity affects the life of every citizen. In a 2013 Pew survey of Pakistani public opinion, 99 per cent of respondents believed that levels of crime were a serious cause for concern, while 98 per cent agreed that terrorism was a serious problem. In the tribal areas, regular terrorist attacks are part of the fabric of everyday life. In the period 2009–12, 16,494 people were killed in terrorist-related violence in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas alone. Poor witness protection, flawed crime-scene management and weak investigative skills lead to extremely low prosecution rates. In 2012, conviction rates in anti-terrorist courts in Sindh were an abysmal 26 per cent. In Karachi, home to over 22 million people, the Taliban are taking over large parts of the city. Those who can afford the expense hire private security guards and live in fortified compounds, or simply emigrate to start a new life.
Even the security establishment is not immune to terrorism. On 20 January 2014 the Pakistani Taliban bombed Rawalpindi’s Royal Artillery Bazaar close to the army’s General Headquarters, in retaliation for the army’s operation at the Lal Masjid in 2007. Residents in the capital, Islamabad, simply make allowances in their daily routines for the inconvenience caused by police checkpoints, road closures for VIP motorcades and the disruption of cell phone services to prevent terrorist attacks.
What happens in Afghanistan in 2014 with the withdrawal of US combat forces is also of critical importance to Pakistan’s and the region’s stability. The Obama administration frequently says that it wants nothing more than a ‘stable, secure and prosperous Pakistan’.
As well as security problems, economic instability is a major cause of concern in Pakistan. Roughly eight in ten Pakistanis describe the economic situation as bad. While the cornerstone of Sharif’s election platform was the economy, few concrete policies have been implemented to spur economic growth.
A key factor hampering growth and economic stabilisation is the energy crisis, which routinely deprives the majority of Pakistanis of electrical power. Some areas in the Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous state, only have power for as little as four hours per day. Business is the big loser from Pakistan’s energy woes. Textile production has plummeted, with the industry as a whole registering losses of around 200 billion rupees (US$1.9 billion) over the past four years. One of the hardest hit industries is fertiliser production. Pakistan has the capacity to produce more than one million tonnes in exportable surplus urea, but in 2011–12 it imported over 1.1 million tonnes. This has balance of payment implications, as well as negative consequences for foreign exchange reserves and the budget.
In the short to medium term, it is the economy that will either push Pakistan further into the abyss or nudge it towards opportunity. Pakistan has great potential. Its demographics are favourable to economic growth, with 66 per cent of the population under 30. Job creation will be essential to encourage new entrants into the workforce. Investment, both domestic and foreign, must also be reinvigorated.
Sharif has a tough job ahead. A multitude of policy failings by the previous government, in areas as diverse as education and regulation, means there is a real danger that a holistic approach to reform will be placed in the ‘too hard basket’. Failures in governance, failure to implement policy legislated by the parliament and a failure to prioritise real reform has perpetuated chronic underdevelopment and worsened deep inequalities within Pakistani society.
It will be a huge challenge for Sharif to lead his country out of the economic and security quagmire in which it is now stuck. In the short to medium term, Pakistan has a real opportunity to get back on track through taking tough measures to address its economic slide and, in particular, by taking tough measures to improve security. It will require real leadership by the Pakistani government and military to ensure that Pakistan does not continue to muddle through — or become a failed state.
Alicia Mollaun is a PhD Candidate at the Crawford School of Public Policy, the Australian National University, and was based in Islamabad from 2010–13.
This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly,‘On the edge in Asia’.