Coping with a Failing Pakistan

Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen Former Brookings Expert

February 28, 2011


As a state and a nation Pakistan has been in trouble for many years, but both now seem to be in a downward spiral. As a recent Brookings study observed, it is very difficult to predict Pakistan’s short-term future, or the impact on its neighbors, let alone the wider international community. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, its history of irresponsible behavior as a nuclear proliferator, the close ties between radical Islamists and Pakistan, and its continuing hostile relations with India and Afghanistan all complicate efforts to look ahead even five years, let alone to speculate about effective policies.

The present policy of focusing on internal stability while encouraging Pakistani cooperation on Afghanistan and good relations with India is probably optimal, although it is unlikely alone to bring about Pakistan’s domestic transformation. These policies will not succeed unless Pakistanis, notably in the army, soon come to terms with their decaying state, rising radicalism, feeble economy and a waning spirit of national identity.

Outsiders can point out the dangers and provide economic and even military assistance that will help on the margins, but the battle for Pakistan will be won – or lost – by Pakistanis themselves. Some proposed policies are irresponsible and others are self-defeating or impractical. Yet, a crisis precipitated by Pakistani behavior, notably a terrorist attack that originated in Pakistan – whether it was deliberate or not, may force more proactive policies. Chief among these would be increased pressure on Pakistan, or even a containment strategy.

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