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Many filed Pakistan under 'basket case' years ago and stopped trying to rationalise developments in that country. Sadly, for others, that isn't an option. What is taking place is tragic, absurd, and frightening.

Trying to Make Sense of Pakistan

by Ghaffar Hussain – Senior Fellow

29th July 2013. Security and Defence, Issue 3, No. 2.    

Change will come to Pakistan – it has to. But it won’t be soon and it won’t be painless

Many filed Pakistan under ‘basket case’ years ago and stopped trying to rationalise developments in that country. Sadly, for others, that isn’t an option. What is taking place is tragic, absurd, and frightening. It also needs to be spoken about.

Pakistan is a country in which hardly a week can go by without news of a spectacular terrorist attack. If it’s not random terrorism targeting ethnic, religious or political minorities, it is school girls being shot for going to school, polio vaccinators being killed for doing their work or a Christian being lynched after being accused of blasphemy. The perpetrators are rarely caught and victims quickly forgotten as news of new, even more despicable events unfold.

The country seems to be imploding. It is tearing itself apart in a fit of violence, intolerance, and hate. Yet this is no small, insignificant statelet; it has a population 170 million, is strategically positioned at the confluence of Iran, India, and China, and has the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world. It is a country with significant potential for tourism, agriculture, business, and sports and it has a long and illustrious history of art, poetry, music, and architecture. Yet, all these things only make its current predicament all the more lamentable.

Pakistan has a military that is more powerful than the civilian government and always has been. It has over 166 terrorists groups operating within it, some of which are backed by the powerful military and used as proxy forces in neighbouring Kashmir and Afghanistan. Crucially, its judiciary and media are also highly politicised; no-one is content with remaining within the confines of their defined remit, all seek more power and control.

This is a country in which no civilian administration has ever completed a term in office, owing to a combination of incompetence and being undermined by the powerful military. It has political parties whose inefficiency is only surpassed by their corruption – parties that stand in democratic elections are not yet even democratically run internally as dynasties in which son or daughter inherits leadership from parent prevail.

This is a country in which weapons that belong to the 21st century are in the hands of people that belong in the 15th century. Pistols, rifles and machine guns are widely available and easy to pick up from local markets. Bomb-making skills seem to be more ubiquitous than any other. If they could be patented, Pakistan would be regarded as a world leading innovator.

This is also a country in deep denial about its malaise. The Pakistani psyche seems unable to comprehend and digest the fate that has befallen it. It can’t reconcile its romanticised view of religious figures with religiously-rooted militancy that hides around every street corner and down every dark alley. It doesn’t seem to have the maturity to search for answers within. It is only comfortable when pointing the finger to outside powers and imaginary sinister conspiracies.

The unfettered violence, chaos, carnage, and political obfuscation have clearly had a profound impact on the psychological health of the nation. Clear thinking has vanished, rationality is dead; and common sense has been buried. It is for these reasons that writing about or even thinking about workable solutions often seems futile. The hate and enmity that exists between myriad competing ethnic, religious, and political communities means that Pakistan as a nation does not really exist.

There is no nation of Pakistan; it died in 1971 when its eastern wing split and became Bangladesh. Now there is only a land mass – a beautiful one at that – being fought over by different power bases. The military, the media, the judiciary, the religious establishment, and political parties all compete for power and influence as millions remain in abject poverty.

Amidst the chaos, however, there is another power base that does offer a glimmer of hope. Pakistan does have a young and vibrant civil society and sections of it are brave, creative, and pluralistic. Many of them are sacrificing their time, energy, and resources in order to bring about change in that country, and they deserve our support.

Many things need to take place in Pakistan in order for it to improve. The military needs to be bought under the control of the civilian government; terrorist groups need to be destroyed and dismantled; corruption needs to be rooted out; the media needs to be learn to be more responsible; law and order needs to be restored in major cities; the education system needs to be reformed; and democracy needs to be allowed to take root.

Change will come to Pakistan – it has to. But it won’t be soon and it won’t be painless. I expect that country to get a lot worse before it gets any better.

The changes the country needs are the type that take generations and can’t be induced by a few policy adjustments and external grants. They also can’t be imported in; they need to be learnt through trial and error. The mind-set of the country needs to be fundamentally transformed. To put it crudely, the country needs a long and thorough enema.

Ghaffar Hussain is contactable at:


Please cite this article as:

Hussain, G. (2013). ‘Trying to Make Sense of Pakistan’

Human Security Centre, Defence and Security, Issue 3, No. 2.

About Ghaffar Hussain

Ghaffar Hussain is the Managing Director at the counter-extremism think tank, the Quilliam Foundation, and author of ‘A Brief History of Islamism’ and ‘Modern Muslim Political Thought – The Progressive Tradition’.