Patterns of Conflict in Pakistan: Implications for Policy


Pakistan’s political instability today is in large measure due to the struggle between three major actors—the civilian wing of the state, the military, and the Islamists. Partition from British India and the migration that followed led to mobilization based on identity, a power structure that was eventually dominated by the military, and the weakening of democratic institutions and principles. Partition also led to an imbalance of power between Pakistan and India, which continues to shape internal Pakistani politics. Other regional developments, such as the Kashmir dispute with India, further partitioning of the state in 1971, the wars in Afghanistan, and the recent U.S.-led war on terror, have also affected Pakistan’s internal dynamics. The military constrained the authority of the constitutional state by assuming an informal but substantive role as the supreme political agent and influencing state policies and strategy. The state’s authority has also been threatened by the Islamic establishment which has, since the founding of the state, pressured the state to establish sharia, or Islamic law. Islamic militant discourse and strategy emerged during the wars in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s and has since intensified.

Despite military rule, regional instability, and Islamist discourse and militancy, Pakistan continues to be a constitutional state with a legal and institutional framework similar to its eastern neighbor India. The state establishment has shown remarkable capacity to reinvent itself and at least partially accommodate pressure from forces contending for power and privilege, within an institutional-constitutional framework.

This framework, however, is still threatened by the internal conflicts outlined in this paper, and therefore policymakers must work to strengthen the civilian framework of constitutional authority, enable the state to control policy, and stabilize the political order in the country. Economic development, a better education system, an empowered civil society, and a more stable region are important goals that must be accompanied by the most crucial variable: political modernization. Political modernization entails integrating unadministered regions of the country into the main legal and political system, strengthening democratic institutions and the rule of law, using a policing rather than a military approach to combat militants, and properly federalizing the state to ensure all provinces are equal stakeholders in the political system.