Pakistan’s Future: About The Bellagio Papers

September 13, 2010

Editor’s Note: The Bellagio papers were one component of a project examining Pakistan’s current and future role as a global power conducted at the Brookings Institution in 2010. They were written by the participants in a conference in Bellagio, Italy in May 2010 that examined the same topic. Discussions at the conference helped shape ideas for The Future of Pakistan (Brookings Institution Press, 2011), which presents and evaluates several scenarios for how the country will develop, evolve and act in the near future, as well as the geopolitical implications of each.

This project was conceived shortly after the publication of The Idea of Pakistan (Brookings Press, revised edition, 2006) in which Chapter 8 looked at “alternative” futures, speculating on the directions in which Pakistan might evolve. These included the continuation of the “establishment” dominated Pakistan, a state in which democratic forms—if not democracy—were maintained. This is also a state with stable if not good relations with two of its neighbors, Afghanistan and India. Overt military rule was also discussed, as was the emergence of a truly “Islamic” state, or even a full-fledged democracy. The book also examined the possibility of a Pakistan in which the provinces of the Northwest Frontier Province, Sindh, Balochistan, or even the Mohajir dominated areas of urban Sind and Karachi broke away. Finally, the possibly that Punjab itself might split was briefly noted, as was the possibility of a new war with India. At the time, Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan was not seen as a major problem, nor did that study examine the role of the press and other changes in culture and society.

By 2006 it was clear that Pakistan was, if not “failing,” at least not fulfilling the hopes that many people had for the regime of General/President Pervez Musharraf. There was always room for skepticism regarding Musharraf’s claims to be Pakistan’s saviour, and the warning indicators that were described in 2004 were all blinking bright red by 2006.

In returning to the question of what makes Pakistan work and what might be its future, a three-fold strategy was pursued. This collection of papers written by a group of Pakistan specialists comprises one prong of that strategy. The other two are a survey of recent predictions of Pakistan’s future (attached below as an Appendix) and an extended essay.

The experts who wrote these papers, European, American, Pakistani, and one Indian, were asked to specify the underlying variables or factors that would shape Pakistan’s future, and then set forth the most likely of these futures. They were also urged to be very brief. I chose this approach rather than sectoral analyses (the economy, the military, foreign influence) because I wanted to get the group to focus on the range and variety of likely futures. There are instructive differences in how they treated the same events or factors. Some contributors were however to also focus on a particular issue, problem, or factor. Thus the papers are not exactly comparable.

The papers were edited and reformatted, but otherwise are reproduced as they were presented at Bellagio. The authors were subsequently given a chance to revise, but together they represent a snapshot as of May-June 2010 of what these experts thought were the key variables that would shape Pakistan in the long-term, and what kind of alternative futures it might see.

Two events occurred after the conference, one was the extension of the Chief of the Army Staff, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani for an additional three years’ tenure, the second was the calamitous floods that struck Pakistan in July-August 2010, submerging about a quarter of the country under water at one time or another. The floods could be seen as a classic Black Swan event, with possible negative consequences for the people and state of Pakistan, but my view is that it is too early to judge one way or another: they could accelerate the negative trends that all of the paper writers comment on, but they could be the stimulus for fundamental rethinking on the part of Pakistan’s leadership—especially the army—its friends, notably the United States, and its most important neighbor, India. These are trying times for Pakistan, but they are also a moment for reconfiguration and regeneration, we will see over the next year whether the floods usher in the destruction of Pakistan as we have known it, or whether something much better (or much worse) will emerge.

The group met for four days in the Rockefeller Foundation Conference Center in Bellagio, Italy from May 17-22. Some of the papers were discussed in detail, but generally we focused on the factors themselves, and plausible alternative futures. In the words of one conference participant, there may have been very few instances when such a grim subject was discussed in such a beautiful setting, for just about all the papers reflect varying degrees of concern (the word ‘pessimism’ comes to mind and I discuss hope-pessimism in my own paper). The papers show great concern about Pakistan’s chances of emerging from its prolonged crisis and becoming a normal state, defined as anything resembling the moderate, progressive state envisaged by the man most responsible for its creation, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. However, very few saw the situation as beyond redemption, and my summary paper reflects the general belief (although there were exceptions) that if Pakistan got several things right, it would avoid slipping into extremism, chaos, or a nasty spell of authoritarianism or worse. That is a huge “if.”

The group did not take a poll or try to form a consensus, the views of individual participants are expressed best in their own papers. There was, however, a learning process: the group was selected because they came from diverse backgrounds, and looked at Pakistan through different lenses. This was not just because of their national original (there were seven Pakistanis, five Americans, two Europeans, and one Indian),but there were three former ambassadors (Fatemi, Milam, Synnott), four students (Haider, Shah, White, Yusuf), three scholars with deep experience with Pakistani society and politics (Rizvi, Weinbaum, Weiss), three “think tank” scholars (Cohen, Fair, Guruswamy), and one retired Pakistani officer (Brig. Shaukat Qadir, who could not obtain a visa in time to participate at Bellagio; his revised paper is included in the collection).

The papers together represent a comprehensive attempt to look at Pakistan’s future. Several paper writers were encouraged to range beyond a discussion of factors and a prediction of the future to discuss specific issues in depth. Laila Bokhari looked closely at radical groups and militants in Pakistan, especially the Punjab, while Josh White focused more on developments in the Frontier. Fatemi, Milam and Synnott, the three former diplomats, each looked at Pakistan’s strategic environment, but mostly focused on the influence of India and the United States. Mohan Guruswamy did not explore Pakistan in general, but did provide a fine-grained study of China’s role. Shaukat Qadir and Hasan Askari Rizvi were asked to pay special attention to the state’s dominant bureaucracy, the army, and Anita Weiss, one of the very few sociologists to work in Pakistan over the last few decades, shared her insights about social and gender issues in a rapidly changing state. Marvin Weinbaum and Chris Fair represent two generations of Americans with deep knowledge of Pakistan, and they focused on political and party developments and state coherence.

It is inappropriate to speak for the group, but there was consensus on the centrality of the army, on India’s role in shaping Pakistan’s identity and policy, and on the rapid deterioration of law and order in Pakistan. For the most part, participants were skeptical of the capability of outside powers, notably the United States, to transform Pakistan without a major effort by the state’s elite. Behind the issue of reforming the police, the parties, the governmental structure, and the economy, there lurks the near irreversible demographic trends that will shape Pakistani society in many ways over the long run. Together, the papers present a grim but realistic picture of a state whose importance has grown vastly over the last decade. As I have written earlier, Pakistan has not failed comprehensively, as have some African states and Afghanistan (although the latter is more properly described as having been murdered, rather than failed), but it has failed along almost every dimension. It is too important to let fail, but there are grave questions as to whether its elite has the will to make the structural and ideological changes that would allow it to become a state at peace with its neighbors and with itself. The answer to the larger question, “is it too late,” has to be nuanced; it may be too late in some sectors, but not in others. These papers, plus my own overview, provide a more detailed answer to this question.


Laila Bokhari
Research Fellow, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs
Associate Fellow, International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, Kings College, United Kingdom

Stephen P. Cohen

Senior Fellow, 21st Century Defense Initiative, The Brookings Institution

C. Christine Fair
Assistant Professor, Center for Peace and Security Studies, Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service

Ambassador (ret.) Tariq Fatemi
Retired Member, Pakistan Foreign Service

Mohan Guruswamy 
Chairman, Centre for Policy Alternatives, New Delhi

Brig. (ret) Shaukat Qadir
Retired Brigadier, Pakistani Army

Ambassador (ret.) William Milam
Senior Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center

Shuja Nawaz
Director, The Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center

Hasan Askari Rizvi
Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Science, University of the Punjab, Lahore

Aqil Shah
Post-Doc Fellow, Society of Fellows, Harvard University  

Sir Hilary Synnott, KCMG
Retired British Diplomat
Consulting Senior Fellow, International Institute for Strategic Studies

Marvin G. Weinbaum
Scholar-in-Residence, Middle East Institute

Anita M. Weiss 
Professor and Department Head of International Studies, University of Oregon

Joshua White
Ph.D. Candidate, The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies
Research Fellow, Institute for Global Engagement

Moeed W. Yusuf
South Asia Adviser, United States Institute of Peace, Center in the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention