Pakistan: A Trip Briefing

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

February 9, 2001

Key Questions-and Some Preliminary Answers

Q. Is Pakistan failing? (When will Pakistan fail?)

A: The wrong question. Some critical institutions have long since failed or never achieved coherence (the political system), others are faltering (the civilian administration); in some cases non-governmental institutions have risen to take their place (e.g. private universities, madrassas in the educational sector). A fuller answer to this question will emerge after a closer examination of key Pakistani institutions, and a study of relevant comparative cases (Turkey, Indonesia, Egypt?)

Q. Is Pakistan becoming Talibanized?

A: If taken literally, a firm “no.” The Taliban may have some influence in NWFP and areas where Pushtuns have settled, but the question really is about other developments. As a Muslim society Pakistan is becoming more conservative, and to some degree, less tolerant of diversity—both within Islam and with regard to non-Muslims. Here there are some parallels with India. As for the Taliban itself the perspective of part of the “establishment” is that they are an instrument of Pakistani policy, and that Pakistan can “tame” or civilize them, without fear of blowback within Pakistan. This is challenged by many liberal Pakistanis who fear the influence of the “jehadis.” A careful distinction must be drawn between the Taliban, the various Jehadi groups operating in Kashmir, and various militant/sectarian Islamic groups.

Q. Is the Pakistan army being taken over by extremists?

A: No. The army is more conservative—or rather there are fewer “liberal” officers than before, which means that it reflects changes in Pakistan itself—but it is still a corporate body, it is concerned about professional matters as well as the future of Pakistani society. I doubt if there are any radical Islamic cabals operating within the officer corps. Younger officers that I met seem identical to their forerunners in many ways. This does not qualify them to reshape Pakistan or to tell civilians how to run universities, research laboratories, schools, or businesses, but as professional soldiers they remain similar to those that I wrote about in the early 1980s.

Q. How great is the risk of war with India?

A: One gets very different answers from different people. Some hard-liners are confident that they can press India in Kashmir without running a risk of a wider war, and that the outbreak of peace might endanger Pakistan because of its inferior resource base. Others (including some very senior officers) seem eager to settle Kashmir and establish a normal relationship with India, although there will never be trust between the two countries. I believe a peace process has achieved “liftoff” but is fragile and the trend of recent months could easily reverse itself—but look for the revival of serious negotiations.

Q. What about the risk of a nuclear war?

A: This is exaggerated here, but in South Asia there may be over-confidence that nuclear threats can be manipulated for political purposes, or that nuclear weapons stabilize the relationship. The risk of escalation because of wrong signals, misperceptions, bad intelligence, is unquantifiable, but not low.

Q. What about the future of Pakistani politics? Will the military stay in power, will BB return?

The army needs a return to a “normal” political system for a number of reasons, but don’t expect it to give up its claim as the ultimate protector of Pakistan, or its right to intervene when things really go bad. The army will continue to “play politics” -it has done this successfully in the past, but also at times with catastrophic results (the Hamoodur Rahman report came out while I was traveling through Pakistan-read it and weep). The kind of leaders that would engender confidence in the army do not seem to be in evidence, I saw no enthusiasm for any current leader; young Pakistanis are looking for a Nelson Mandela, or an Ayatollah Khomeini, or a new Quaid-i-Azam.

Q. Will the reforms work?

A: The reconstruction of politics, undertaken by the National Reconstruction Bureau, is a pet project of Musharraf, I don’t know if it will outlast his tenure; it is a sincere effort that may have complex consequences, although it will not throw up a new generation of political leaders at the provincial or national level. The National Accountability Bureau is working its way through a large number of cases, and most Pakistanis believe that corruption has been contained. I reserve judgment pending a few more visits to Pakistan.

Q. Has the economy failed?

A: You can’t pursue ruinous economic policies for thirty years without paying the price somewhere down the line. The formal economy is in desperate shape, and critical Pakistani institutions are being starved to death; there is a lively informal economy, however, but the trends are mostly negative. Again, I defer to the experts, but those that I met seemed to have very different prescriptions for the patient.

Q. What should the US be doing?

A: There should be significant assistance for those civilian institutions that have deteriorated over the years, especially education. This would have a long-term impact and would be welcomed (but is it too late?). The practice of keeping the Pakistani economy on a short-tether may also be reexamined. We need to revive ties with the Pakistan military, resuming training and education. There should also be a greater engagement on critical regional issues, but with the understanding that Kashmir Afghanistan and the nuclear issue are linked and cannot be treated in isolation. A stable but restrained Pakistan is in everyone’s interest—but are the negative trends reversible?