The South Asia Channel

Is Pakistan's condition terminal?

Sharing an elevator the other day, a colleague suddenly turned to me and asked:  "So, just how much longer does Pakistan have?"  My interlocutor is not the first person to pose that question, but coming from a savvy veteran of the international arena, his out-of-the-blue query was jolting. 

Pakistan, after all, is not Laos or Sierra Leone.  It is a real country, too large and too centrally located to be casually written off.  It will soon have the fifth-largest population in the world, with 40 million more people than Russia. It already has the seventh-largest army in the world, and is closing in on the United Kingdom to become the fifth-largest nuclear power.

Yet Pakistan gives the appearance of a state not merely in decline, but in terminal decline.  Its institutions are broken, its economy lagging, its government finances slipshod, its social indicators deplorable. Corruption is rampant, while tax evasion is the national sport; a Pakistani investigative reporter last fall discovered that two-thirds of federal lawmakers paid no taxes in 2011, nor had the president.  Journalists are regularly detained or murdered because their reporting has come too close to truths those in power prefer to obscure-the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom index has found that for the second consecutive year, Pakistan is the most dangerous country in the world for journalists.  Assassination is also an ever-present danger for politicians who espouse progressive views or challenge the authority of extremists.  Political and civic leadership is absent, while sectarian violence against Shi'as and other minorities is all too present - witness, for instance, the anti-Christian rampage in Lahore earlier this month. 

To be sure, Pakistan has faced even graver crises in the past, most notably when the country split apart in 1971 and the eastern half of the state broke away to form the separate country of Bangladesh.  But the systemic decay one sees in Pakistan today surpasses even the breakdown that preceded the 1971 crisis.

Pakistanis-many of whom will hate this article-will correctly point out that the Pakistani people are extraordinarily resilient.  (They will also, quite properly, retort that an American should be the last person to be lecturing them on political gridlock or fiscal probity.)  Indeed, that quality of sheer plodding resilience is inescapable to anyone with more than the barest familiarity with Pakistan. 

Resilience, however, is not rejuvenation, and it is far more difficult to find convincing evidence that Pakistan is capable of genuine rejuvenation.

Not all is lost; Pakistan's present ills need not be terminal.  History offers examples of floundering states that have turned their fortunes around.  Not many years ago, informed observers described Colombia, which was riven by narcotics mafias, multiple guerrilla forces, paramilitary groups, and surging numbers of displaced people, as a failed state in waiting.  Yet in the last 15 years, Colombia has witnessed a profound transformation:  the security situation has vastly improved, the economy is growing smartly, and the army and police are professional and operate within the bounds of the law.  

Indonesia offers the example of a Muslim-majority country that has dramatically revitalized itself in recent years (although Indonesia was never as seriously troubled as Pakistan is today).   Other countries-Germany, Japan, or somewhat earlier, the Ottoman forerunner to today's Turkey-have parlayed the catastrophe of military defeat to reverse their fortunes and build a successful polity.

What (besides the sting of defeat) did these countries have that today's Pakistan does not?  Surely Pakistan does not lack for talented, entrepreneurial individuals, idealistic youth, or a core constituency for creating a modern, rules-based state.  And in recent years it has developed a feisty media and a judiciary willing to challenge traditional power brokers.

But Pakistan has failed abysmally in cultivating leadership, vision, and a national commitment to turn around the fortunes of an ailing state.  Equally bad, the people of Pakistan have for too long tolerated shoddy governance, venal politicians, failing institutions, and second-best performance.  The equanimity with which Pakistanis accept bad governance and reward those culpable with new terms of office remains astonishing.  One current minister, for instance, the official whose portfolio includes law and order, is credibly reported to have blamed Karachi's abominable history of sectarian murders on angry wives and girlfriends.  Rather than incensed indignation, his eccentricities have inspired little more than amused tolerance. 

How to explain this collective shrug of indifference, this fatalistic acceptance of conditions and behaviors that ought to be unacceptable?  That is a complicated question that defies easy answer.  Part of the explanation might lie in a feeling of powerlessness that reflects the daily experience of most Pakistanis, who see themselves as having little control over the decisions and processes that shape their day-to-day lives. Hence the widespread belief in Pakistan in the ‘hidden hand,' in conspirators hiding in the shadows.

Can Pakistan continue to muddle through?  Will Pakistan exist more or less in its current manifestation ten years from now?  In all probability, yes. 

But is muddling through good enough?  Decay is a cumulative process and not easily reversed.  Equally to the point, today's Pakistan displays few signs that any of its current power centers are serious about trying to reverse the country's rot.  There are exceptions, to be sure.  But that's precisely the problem: they are exceptions. 

So what does all this mean for Pakistan's friends and well-wishers?  In fact, one need not even be a friend of Pakistan to hope that it succeeds; the consequences of a wholesale Pakistani collapse-terrorism, poverty, loose nukes, refugees, deteriorating human rights, especially for women and girls, heightened tensions with its neighbors-are too fearful to wish on even an adversary.  Think of a nuclear-armed Lebanon, where violent extremists wield more power than the formal government.

Yet the sad reality is that outsiders can do precious little to staunch Pakistan's slide to disfunctionality unless Pakistanis decide to seize control of their own destiny.  The United States-and the rest of the international community-can be only bit players in this drama.  America's influence in Pakistan, for reasons good and bad, is vastly exaggerated.  As Pakistan confronts its challenges, foreigners can make a difference only at the margins. 

Ultimately, Pakistanis must do this themselves. They must demonstrate an unaccustomed willingness to face hard realities, to make difficult choices, to accept short-term pain in the hope of laying the groundwork for longer term success. In other words, they must do all those things that we Americans find it impossible to do. 

This is a troubling conclusion, if for no reason beyond the fact that most people find it easier to tolerate the status quo, no matter how unsatisfactory, than to jump off a cliff into an unknowable future. Until that moment when a fed-up Gdansk electrician runs out of patience, a charismatic ayatollah unexpectedly emerges to rally his fellow aggrieved, a spontaneous protest takes on a life of its own.  At which point anything can happen, and not only in ways that are constructive or beneficial.

That's a risky strategy for reform in Pakistan, if it's a strategy at all.  Perhaps more prudently, Pakistanis (and Americans) should start by demanding accountability from their political leaders-and be prepared to fire those leaders when they fail to deliver.  Pakistanis must no longer be content with observing some of the forms of democracy-periodic elections, multiple political parties, a parliament. Instead, they must demand the realities of good governance-honesty, transparency, and accountability. Until that time, outsiders can do little more than stand by as horrified spectators, watching a train wreck in slow motion.

Robert M. Hathaway is director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images

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