February 16, 2012

Pakistan: Arrival and Departure

When it comes to Pakistan, everything is important and everything is uncertain

Three problems need to be discussed as a prelude to examining the factors that will shape Pakistan’s future. The first is the rhetoric of hope and failure, the second is sequencing, and the third is the difficulty of “sizing” the problem of Pakistan’s future.

Those who make predictions about Pakistan generally fall into two categories: the pessimists, who believe that things will go from bad to worse, and the optimists, who believe that history is about to reverse itself. The Pakistani American scholar Ahmed Faruqui is cautiously optimistic, noting that both France and Britain were mired in “cognitive dissonance” but eventually attained greatness. The consultants involved in the National Intelligence Council study on Pakistan’s future were deeply skeptical about Pakistan. Many Indian commentators and some liberal Pakistanis and the Islamic conservatives believe that Pakistan is doomed by its very nature—its cultural DNA—and that transformation must occur or collapse is inevitable. For some, there is a little Schadenfreude in their expectations of failure.


Photo: Joshua Song

On the other hand, most contemporary writers hold out hope; they are cautiously optimistic, although the outright optimists are vanishing quickly. They see Pakistan’s known and important assets as evidence of at least the potential for positive transformation. In the words of a distinguished retired Pakistani diplomat, Tariq Fatemi, “Pakistan should be confident of its own abilities and optimistic about its future given its size, location and the qualities of its people…..So should the rest of the work, given that Pakistanis have been successful wherever they have gone, and in whatever endeavors they have undertaken.”

Hope is neither a policy not a planning factor, but it is intimately related to success and failure. The hope that things will or can be better is deeply embedded in the human condition, but it also is the mirror image of worst case thinking, the anticipation of catastrophe. Without hope, there would be little change, in a world dominated by fatalists and pessimists. On the other hand, excessive hope and blind optimism can be the basis for extremist and utopian movements.

Sequencing is yet another important conceptual issue, because it forces one to prioritize. As an Indian Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses study noted, all of the factors or variables shaping Pakistan’s future are important. But are any factors more important than the rest? Can we distinguish between those that are important but intractable and those that might be amenable to change? The fundamental question is whether some or all of the variables that will shape Pakistan’s future must operate in a certain way to enable something resembling success to occur, but that question is also fundamentally hard to answer. It is evident that there are many factors that qualify as critical to Pakistan’s future; none, however, are determinative in their own right. Internal social and economic decay is one factor, but so is the incoherence of the Pakistani political establishment; the political establishment’s relations with the military, especially the army; and the role of friendly and hostile outside powers. At least six conditions are necessary for a stable Pakistan, but none are sufficient, and their sequencing and timing are critical.

My view is that modesty with regard to what can be done is the most appropriate stance because these are events that are inherently difficult to understand. To adapt the words of a former ambassador to the Soviet Union, “I don’t know where Pakistan is heading, but once it gets there I will explain to you why it was inevitable.”

Finally, there is a “sizing” issue. Scientists talk about sizing a problem—stating its parameters—as the first step toward solving it. In discussing the challenges and capabilities of Pakistan at the Bellagio workshop, Sir Hilary Synnott examined the metaphor of the glass that is alternatively described as being half-full or half-empty, noting that perhaps the real problem is that glass is too large. That is another way of “sizing”: if Pakistan’s capabilities are inadequate, it may be because its ambitions are too great. This suggests that priorities are critically important and that Pakistan has to decide which of its challenges are urgent and which are secondary and can be deferred. State capacity then can be directed to the most important problems.

One aspect of this “too-large glass” is that Pakistan carries with it the enormous burden of the past. When it comes to its relations with its most important neighbor, India, and its most important international ally, the United States, its overarching narrative is that of victimhood. Pakistan’s perception of itself as the victim of Hindu domination has led to the mother of all “trust deficits,” a deficit that can never be eliminated because it stems from deeply held believe that Indians are dominating, insincere and untrustworthy. In this view, there is nothing that Pakistan can do to normalize the relationship because Indians/ Hindus are essentially untrustworthy and have proven that to be true time and time again. My view is that if trust is a component of the problem, it is eternal one. There can never be “enough” trust between sovereign states, but sovereign states might think of both trusting and verifying, which in Urdu can be translated as aitemaad aur tasdeeq.

With regard to US actions, many Pakistanis believe that Afghan war in the 1980s, the Pressler sanctions, and other harmful or duplicitous policies were instances of the United States using Pakistan and abandoning it. The war destabilized Pakistan, and the sanctions were imposed because of a nuclear program that Washington had earlier chosen to ignore. More recent examples include the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan to attack the Taliban (which itself had not done the United States any harm), pushing radical elements into Pakistan and further destabilizing the country. The U.S. narrative of all of these events is, of course, quite different, and there is a deep trust deficit between Pakistan and the United States, as well as Pakistan and India. With regard to both sets of relationships, any policy that assumes trust is likely to fail.

When it comes to Pakistan, everything is important and everything is uncertain. To frame the discussion of the factors or variables that are most important in shaping Pakistan, nineteen of them are grouped into four clusters. The first cluster includes domestic concerns with respect to demographics, urbanization, the economy, and education; these are all closely related, and with the exception of the economy, which is subject to changes in policy, they are less mutable than others. A second cluster concerns the collective identity of Pakistan’s people, who identify themselves and act on the basis of their regional, ethnic, and state affiliations. The third cluster concerns the ability of Pakistanis to work for or against a common goal or even to determine what their goals might be. Here are included the bureaucracy and structure of the government; the ability of its officials, notably the military; and the role of the increasingly important electronic and print media. The fourth and final cluster includes the policies and attitudes of important foreign states as well as the phenomenon of globalization. These are the factors that shape Pakistan’s environment. Globalization, of course, penetrates into Pakistan in many ways and affects the other factors, shaping economic possibilities, influencing the ambitions and they very identities of Pakistan’s citizens, and aiding or undercutting the workings of the state in different ways.

Excerpted from The Future of Pakistan, edited by Stephen P Cohen

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