Mapping Pakistan’s Internal Dynamics


Pakistan poses one of the world’s most significant and vexing geopolitical challenges, as its geographic position at the nexus of the Middle East and Asia, nuclear stockpile, and domestic extremist groups make the country a top priority for the United States, according to Mapping Pakistan’s Internal Dynamics, a new report from The National Bureau of Asian Research.

“The prospect of state failure or of Islamist forces undermining Pakistan’s democratic transition is not beyond the realm of possibility,” the report suggests, adding that “such an outcome would pose dire security challenges for Pakistan’s neighbors, regional stability, and the United States.”

There are broad, though weak, currents of democratization flowing through the country; civil society groups, sections of the media, artists, and academics are demanding greater freedom of expression to examine the very foundations of state ideology and core beliefs, notes analyst Vivek Katju:

At the same time, strong religious sentiments, challenging and modifying the nature of Pakistan’s traditional Islamic persuasion, are animating national discourse. Consequently, intolerance of minority Islamic sects and of other religions is rising and leading to extremist thought and violence. The forces of social conservatism are at odds with the advocates of a liberal Pakistan. It is within the matrix of these pressures that the state is seeking to balance its moorings while battling the insurgencies arising from entrenched ethnic separatism, such as in Baluchistan, and religiously inspired rebellion, such as in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

The convergence of two recent developments—massive military operations against the militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the consensus among major political parties and civil society activists that extremism and militancy are the most imminent threats to Pakistan’s security—calls for a deeper commitment by the international community to strengthen these trends through a package of incentives, argues Mumtaz Ahmad, Executive Director of the Iqbal International Institute for Research and Dialogue in Islamabad:

While a great deal of optimism exists concerning the role of newly mobilized civil society in Pakistan, there is also some merit to the claim that civil-military relations have entered a new phase. Since the democratic civilian elections of 2008, the military high command has refused to intervene directly into politics and once again install a military regime. This does not merely represent a tactical shift in the mentality of Pakistan Army General Headquarters. Rather, it denotes a strategic recalibration of the requirements of the national interest of the Pakistani state. Although the Pakistan Army remains deeply concerned about the shenanigans of various civilian political dispensations that come and go, it has most likely come to the realization that the business of domestic political life is best managed by civilian politicians and administrators so that the military can maintain its focus on the various security threats the nation faces, both internally and externally.

“While the Pakistan Army may continue to use soft power to put pressure on Islamabad when it feels that politicians and administrators either are threatening fundamental interests of the state or have been ineffective in dealing with particular threats, it is highly unlikely that the army will once again dislodge a civilian government to restore itself back into the front seat,” Ahmad adds. “In this sense, though it may seem counterintuitive, the military establishment has been tacitly supportive of civil society’s attempt to monitor and increase the accountability, transparency, and efficiency of politicians and administrative arms of the state.”

The righteous rage articulated by civil society activists and online media against electoral irregularities, corruption in political circles, human rights violations, and socio-economic injustices, and the unprecedented popular response that these voices received from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to Punjab and Sindh support several conclusions, he adds:

First, a powerful shift is taking place from the rhetoric of an Islamic state under sharia to the language of rights, welfare, and public good.

Second, politics in Pakistan has now become a truly free public space as opposed to a space largely occupied by a limited class of big landlords, tribal chiefs and sardars (noblemen), and prominent families.

Third, Pakistan is on its way to becoming a “political society” in the sense in which the term has been used by the Italian political theorist Giorgio Agamben.

Pakistan’s civil society is still weak but is bravely attempting to create a more humane country that respects human rights, including those of minorities, writes analyst Vivek Katju:

Activists have not hesitated to criticize the excesses of official agencies and have risked their lives to raise the issue of the disappearance and deaths of thousands in Baluchistan. …The assassination of Sabeen Mahmud in Karachi in April 2015 is a demonstration of the sensitivity of the intelligence agencies and the religious right to the activities of civil society. Activists have also been severely critical of the application of the blasphemy laws, which has resulted in the incarceration of many on trumped up charges. Civil society groups have also advocated for the state’s adoption of a more rational foreign policy and abandonment of the use of terror by severing links between the state and jihadi groups.

Activists have incurred the ill will of both the state and the jihadi groups but are persevering. Pakistani authorities are particularly opposed to any criticism of intelligence agencies, especially to charges that they are indulging in illegal activities. As of now, civil society groups have not gained enough strength to influence official thinking, though the state is monitoring their activities. The state apparatus wishes to project Pakistan as a moderate and enlightened Islamic country. On account of their foreign linkages, civil society groups can bring pressure to bear on the state both by themselves and directly by their friends abroad.

However, the regional developments that ensued after September 11 have rendered Pakistan’s internal security virtually unmanageable, notes Georgetown University’s Christine C. Fair.

As an authoritarian state, Pakistan has consistently failed to develop constitutional democratic arrangements that would empower citizens to take part in the conduct of their state’s affairs at home and abroad. If bureaucratic, political, and military leaders were serious about contending with these myriad threats, they would undertake very serious reforms, she writes:

First, the state would evolve a different ideology that moves away from the exclusionary and communal rhetoric of the two-nation theory toward an approach that acknowledges and embraces sectarian, ethnic, communal, and other regional and local differences.

Second, it would undertake sweeping reforms of internal security governance.

Third, the state would abandon jihad as the principal tool of foreign policy in Afghanistan and India. As there is virtually no chance that Pakistan would pursue one, much less all three, of these courses of change, the United States and the region should prepare for a Pakistan that is ever more dangerous—most of all for its own citizens.

As things stand, the Great Game which set the tone for the great rivalry of the nineteenth century between the British and the Russian empires has been replaced by the struggle between jihadism and democracy, writes Hudson Institute analyst Husain Haqqani, formerly Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States:

The rise of terrorist organizations that now challenge the military means that any future military intervention will incite opposition not only from pro-democracy forces but from militant groups as well. A military intervention would thus lead to increased violence and instability, further emboldening militants and allowing them to propagate their own form of sharia rule. … To restore stability, the military could decide to once again co-opt certain militant organizations, thereby increasing their role in the country. This action would not only wipe out the small but not insignificant democratic gains made by Pakistan since 2008 but also wash away any gains made against the spread of militant organizations and their views in the country.

Informal agencies of influence in Pakistan are tied to three broad trends, argues Matthew J. Nelson, a Reader in the Politics Department at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London:

  • The first trend unfolds in the domain of society at large and consists of a movement away from large landowners in favor of the rising lower-middle classes.
  • The second trend takes place in the realm of religion and involves the decline of established religious scholars in favor of Pakistan’s freelancing and relatively undisciplined junior ulema.
  • The third trend, unfolding in the sphere of local politics, involves a general shift away from the senior statesmen who sought to mold the formal legal landscape of Pakistan in favor of what I call Pakistan’s “petty parliamentarians.” This group of politicians does not seek to mold the law; rather, it seeks to determine who is held accountable to existing laws and, more importantly, who is not.


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