January 29, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Pakistan: Running on Empty

• Pakistan remains in trouble although the Peshawar school attack has brought new focus to the fight against extremists

• A youth bulge combined with a serious lack of schools and teachers will likely allow extremist groups to gain more popular support

• Reliance on the army to deal with terrorists does not address the problem of terrorism

• Pakistan needs sustained commitment to countering extremism if it is to become a more stable and productive country.


The shift of international attention away from Pakistan towards other violent extremist trouble-spots does not mean that the situation in the country has gotten much better—it is more that the situation elsewhere is even worse. Pakistan has an extraordinary ability to survive shocks that would seriously challenge the stability of many other countries, but it is questionable how long this resilience can last. There is an urgent need for reform in education, in the economy, in infrastructure—especially in energy supply—and, above all, in governance. While as individuals Pakistanis may have a strong sense of identity, as a nation they do not. The country has become a mass of contradictions, pulling it in several directions at once and confusing everyone as to its likely destination.

From the outside, it would seem that Pakistan’s main challenge lies in dealing with the inexorable spread of violent extremism, and this is certainly an area of government focus. Just last week, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called a meeting of federal and provincial leaders to promote the implementation of the National Action Plan, a comprehensive strategy to address the threat of terrorism. He has also created a Cabinet Committee on National Security. But despite his efforts, and despite the horror of the December 16 attack on an army school in Peshawar that left more than 130 children dead, there is already a sense in Islamabad that the task is just too great. The army has continued to attack Pakistan Taliban targets in the Tribal Areas, and has done so with renewed vigor since the Peshawar attack, but it is at best managing to kill terrorists rather than deal with the problem of terrorism. Other parts of the country, such as Karachi, are not as susceptible to a military approach.

The growth of extremism has exposed the weakness of the state, which has failed miserably to capitalize on the vast human potential of the country. One hundred million Pakistanis are under the age of 25, and the median age of the population is just 22, meaning that elections for the foreseeable future will be decided by the country’s youth. However, most of these new voters will be ill-equipped to make a well considered choice as to who should rule them. Twenty five million children between six and 16 do not attend school, and even those lucky enough to get into a state school are often poorly taught by unmotivated teachers who are very often absent. Barely 5% of students are in higher education—compared to 18% in India—and the government spends just 2% of GDP on education. The lack of education or skills training condemns a sizable percentage of the workforce to a life of poverty, exacerbated by large families and little in the way of a social safety net.

It is no wonder then that extremists can gather support for agendas that have more to do with power and money than they do with ideology. A poor boy in Quetta will agree to act as a suicide bomber for a sectarian terrorist group such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi for less than $50. And will do so unthinkingly. The survivor of the Mumbai attacks of 2008 told investigators how he had been recruited for the operation by Jamaat ud Dawa/Lashkar-e-Taiba almost by accident, and without any real understanding of what he was doing or why. There is little in the way of a coherent government narrative to counter the facile arguments put forward by extremist groups, though Pakistan’s constitution is secular and respectful of all.

The weakness of government is also highly visible in its inability to apply the law against violent extremists. There has never been a successful prosecution of a terrorist case in Pakistan. Witnesses, and all too often judges, are easily intimidated, killed, or bribed. This has led to many extra-judicial killings by police and others who reckon that this is the only way to deliver justice in the absence of an effective judiciary. In an effort to improve things, the government this month handed over jurisdiction in terrorist cases to military courts for a set period of two years. But this is an abrogation of responsibility in one of the key areas of government and increases civilian reliance on the army to deal with internal security, with no assumption that the civilian courts will be any more able to resume their role once the two year period is up.

Many Pakistani officials blame the growth of extremism in society on the 11-year rule of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. Zia is among several military leaders in Pakistan’s history who believed they could do a better job at governing than civilian politicians. Others blame the West, especially for its encouragement of extremist groups fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during Zia’s Presidency. Few, if any, blame themselves. But unless politicians manage to address the noxious mix of incompetence and corruption that leaves the country without power for hours each day, allows the rich to skip paying taxes, gives rise to unnecessary fuel shortages, drives away investment, and fosters extremism, Pakistan will not move forward.

No one in the international community wishes to see Pakistan collapse, not even India. The consequences for the region and the world would be severe, but although there is currently a sustained effort to address the violence that is tearing at the country’s soul, there is a limit to what can be done by outsiders. The relationship with Afghanistan has improved considerably since Ashraf Ghani took over the presidency. China too has shown increasing interest in helping Pakistan deal with terrorism as it feels the impact on its own security. The United States’ relationship with the Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif is far warmer than it was with his predecessor. It is only India where the relationship remains rocky, with frequent attacks over the Line of Control that divides the disputed territory of Kashmir. But all this help and assistance pales into insignificance when measured against the problems faced by the Pakistani state, and unless there is a long-term government commitment to address the country’s fundamental ills, not much is likely to change.


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