The Future of Pakistan

Dr Stephen Cohen, one of the world's foremost experts on Pakistan, talks about his predictions for future of country.

Malik Siraj Akbar January 15, 2012

Dr Stephen P Cohen, a Senior Fellow at the Washington DC-based think tank the Brookings Institution, is considered as the ‘dean of the Pakistan experts’. He is known as one of the world’s most trusted authorities on the Pakistani military and its relationship with the civilian governments.

Author of Pakistan Army and the Idea of Pakistan, Dr Cohen recently edited a new book called The Future of Pakistan. The 325-page book focuses on a number of challenges Pakistan currently faces. Here are excerpts from a conversation with Dr Cohen about the predictions the book makes about Pakistan’s future.

Some of the best experts on Pakistan contribute to your book The Future of Pakistan. Why did you choose this title?

The book does not look at yesterday or today, but the day after tomorrow by examining the factors and variables which will influence the future of Pakistan. I became more concerned after publishing my 2004 book, The Idea of Pakistan, as many of its more pessimistic judgments were coming true. So, I invited some of the best scholars on the subject to share their ideas. All of them expressed concern about the existing situation. Most seemed to agree, however, that Pakistan would not experience major transformation in the next five to seven years. We did not try to look beyond that.

In my chapter, I paid special attention to the decline of the Pakistani state. The more I looked, the more pessimistic I became.


You say you did not want to offend your Pakistani friends while writing this book but you also insist that a hurtful truth is better than a pleasant lie. What are these hurtful truths about Pakistan that you think need to be told now?

One was that General Pervez Musharraf fooled himself and he fooled everyone else. He lacked toughness, he tried to please everyone. He was not capable of leading Pakistan’s liberal transformation, although he personally held a liberal vision of the future. Some Pakistanis and many Americans thought that Musharraf was the last hope for Pakistan. I disagree, there are a lot of good Pakistanis around, both in the military and outside of it. However,the army can’t govern the country effectively but it won’t let others govern it either. This is the governance dilemma. Pakistan is stuck between being an outright military dictatorship and a stable democracy. Neither are likely, and an even less likely future would be a radical transformation and the rise of Islamists or a breakaway movement led by the Baloch or other separatist groups. We did not see this coming soon, yet with the obvious breakdown of law and order, the decline of the economy, as well as a dysfunctional civilian-military relationship — change seems to be in the wind — but few of us can be precise about what that change will be. Pakistan is muddling through, but change and transformation are coming, I just don’t know when or how.

Weakness in governance, education, and the absence of land reform made Pakistan a victim of contemporary globalisation. It doesn’t make much that anyone wants to buy, and it is cut off from its natural regional trading partners. Yet, the negative aspects of Islamist globalisation have hit Pakistan hard. Some of the weirdest ideas in the Islamic world have found rich soil in Pakistan, and the country is regarded as an epicentre of terrorism. Pakistan, which was once held up as the most moderate of the Islamic states, seems to be embracing extremists and their dysfunctional violent ideas.

Is Pakistan on the verge of collapse?

No, it is not going to collapse. The military will ensure that the state will not collapse. It is not a country in need of critical support for its survival but it may yet happen some day, especially if the economy collapses.

Pakistan has to make a breakthrough and become a South Asian country. It should join India in a number of cooperative ventures while protecting its sovereignty against foreign interests and intrusions.

The Indians tend to be bullying when it comes to their neighbours, but Pakistanis are capable of defending their interests. Many Indians are ready for a change now. India sees itself as a major rising Asian state and Pakistan is a drag on it.

Yet, because of nuclearisation India can’t conceive of finishing off Pakistan. The only realistic option for India is cooperation. Islamabad’s decision to grant India the most favoured nation (MFN) status offers an opportunity to both countries; will it lead to a peace process? I don’t know, but their dilemma is that they cannot live with each other and they cannot live without each other. They need to cooperate along several dimensions, there is no military solution for the problems each has with the other.


Why do you call Pakistan a major foreign policy headache for the United States?

In the book I quote an American who said we assumed that with all our aid and alliances we believed that Pakistan would emerge as an independent democratic state. However, it turned out that India, which did not get our military assistance and partnership, has emerged as that kind of country.

The Pakistanis, particularly the military, have a hard time looking around for role models. Turkey, Indonesia or Malaysia may not be the perfect role models for Pakistan. Perhaps the best political role model for you is India which is also a diverse South Asian state, but now with a stable political order and growing economic power. In India, the military has a legitimate role but still remains under the government’s control.

It is the responsibility of the Pakistani civilian government to find a legitimate role for the Pakistani army, and the army must help in that search, the present arrangement is not working.


You say you don’t know where Pakistan is heading to but once it gets there you will explain why it was inevitable.

I quoted a former US ambassador to the Soviet Union who said, “I don’t know what is going to happen to the Soviet Union but when it does happen I will tell you exactly why it was inevitable.” So, looking ahead at Pakistan’s future, we don’t know what is going to happen to Pakistan but we know something alarming is happening to it. Pakistan will remain, but its identity is changing.

As for America’s mixed role in Pakistan, there were two areas where we should have been more accommodating. First, we should have recognised Pakistan as a nuclear power after it tested its weapons in 1998 — as we did with the Indians. This would have legitimised the Pakistani nuclear programme and reduced the paranoia that the Americans were trying to deprive them of their nuclear capability; it might also have contributed to more responsible Pakistani nuclear policy, right now it is the fastest growing nuclear weapons state in the world — and one with a bad record of transferring nuclear technology in the past. Second, the US should have provided trade opportunities, instead of only military aid, to Pakistan after 9/11. There was a serious Pakistani interest in increasing trade, not just receiving military aid; the US did not respond to this.


How can Pakistan get out of what you call the burden of its history and narrative of victimhood?

First, economic trade between Pakistan and the rest of South Asia should be encouraged. It should hook up with India, one of the fastest growing economies in the world, as well as continue its ties with China. The Iran-Pakistan-Indian pipeline is a good idea and I am baffled why the Americans have always opposed it. Yes, it will help the Iranians, but the pipeline will also help the Afghans, the Indians and the Pakistanis. In my math, three positives outweigh one negative.

Second, Pakistani governments have been cowardly in dealing with those who oppose modernity and try to push the country back to the seventh century. Perhaps the cowardice comes from the fact that the state uses some of these groups for its own strategic purposes, a fatal and self-defeating miscalculation.


Why do you argue that the Pakistani military has neither run the country effectively nor allowed others to run it?

Well, because they are not trained to be economists or how to run businesses although the military manages a lot of businesses once they retire. They are not trained to be politicians. Being a politician is a difficult skill to acquire. People cannot be ordered about, especially Pakistanis. As a politician, you have to find common interests by working with people who dislike each other; Pakistan needs to develop a true political class.

In Pakistan, the military has identified enemies among its fellow-citizens. If you demonise your own people, you are in deep trouble. I mean you can’t treat the Bengalis or the Baloch, or other ethnic or religious minorities the way you treat foreign enemies. That’s the route to catastrophe, as we have seen both in Pakistan and other countries that have given up on pluralism and tolerance and headed down the road to self-destruction.

Of Pakistan’s military leaders, Ayub Khan tried to act as a politician but failed because he could not address two deeper problems, education and land reforms. If you look at the East Asian tigers, they all dealt with land reforms early and invested heavily in education at all levels. Even China has done this, albeit through totalitarian coercion, which would not work in pluralistic Pakistan.


How much influence will Islam and the army continue to exercise on the future of Pakistan?

I like the idea of seeing Islamic parties getting a chance to govern, and then discovering whether they succeed or fail. I’d also like to see somebody like Imran Khan get elected — not that I am a particular fan of his, but let him get elected and assume the burden and responsibilities of governance, and be held accountable. Let him succeed or fail on these terms.

I had a conversation with Musharraf right after his coup and told him that while the obviously corrupt and extremist political leaders had to be held accountable, that he should also hold elections and let the democratic process move forward. He responded to the effect that he was going to fix the system once and for all. I knew then he was in deep trouble. In a normal state you have to allow people to fail. They must run for office, get elected and then fail on their own terms. It should be left to the people of Pakistan to decide who they elect to rule them. In the long run, they will make the right decision, but the courts, the press, and, rarely, even the military, will be around to prevent disaster. Failure should be seen as helping to perfect the system, not a sign of a bad system. The cure for bad democracy is more and better democracy, not an incompetent military regime, which only breeds resentment as it covers up its failures. In Pakistan the mentality seems to be that having won an election, the victor can persecute his or political rivals. I’d prefer a moderate competent military regime to this kind of pseudo democracy.


How is failure in Afghanistan going to affect Pakistan?

If the Taliban come back to power or if they play a significant role in the future dispensation, there will be a major blowback on Pakistan. We may yet see how the government of Pakistan responds to the Taliban mindset which says that ‘we [Taliban] have defeated one superpower, the United States, in Afghanistan and now we will take control of Pakistan and then India.’ This is a revolutionary movement that has to be contained and stopped, not provided with safe-haven and political support. Staying away from Bonn was a strategic gaffe that put Pakistan on the opposite side of virtually the entire world.


What are some of the future scenarios and options you discuss in the book about Pakistan?

Some American experts are talking about containing Pakistan. This is premature language, but if Pakistan pursues policies which are hostile to American interests in Afghanistan and if they support terrorism then we might move to a policy of containment . This would have two dimensions: erecting a military barrier while supporting internal transformation. I don’t know about containing Pakistan militarily, it seems to be pursing self-defeating policies in any case, but I support the latter kind of policy. America’s goal should be a normal Pakistan.


What should or can be done to immediately bring Pakistan into what you call a ‘normal state category’?

The long-term key to normalising Pakistan is India. The fear of India drives the Pakistan army and the army drives Pakistan. If India can normalise with Pakistan in one way or the other, then Pakistan can devote its resources and energy to becoming a more attractive and respected country.


What are the warning signs and revolutionary options for Pakistan?

An interesting part of the book is where I compare Pakistan with a number of other states. Pakistan is unlikely to follow the Iranian model of a clergy-led revolution because the army in Pakistan is stronger than its counterpart was in Iran. The negative case for Pakistan would be that of Tsarist Russia where the country was destabilised by World War I, the army fell apart and Russia’s ruling nobility had no credibility, and revolutionary groups filled the gap. There are also other bad examples like the Balkans or Yugoslavia, or interwar Japan, where the military pursued fatally self-destructive policies vis-a-vis the West and China.

Never in history have we seen a country so big with so many nuclear weapons in this kind of trouble. When the Chinese went through their cultural revolution, they did not have nuclear weapons. Hence, people were not much afraid of China. When the Soviet Union disintegrated and became Russia, they knew they wanted to become Europeans. Pakistanis should now decide to become South Asians by becoming once again a part of South Asia.

Can China become an alternative strategic partner of Pakistan to replace the US?

If the Chinese could teach Pakistan how to become an economic power, that would be great. Yet, the Chinese are not going to teach Pakistan how to become a democracy. Given Pakistan’s complexity and social diversity, democracy is a good system for it because it allows most people to have a say in the affairs of the state. You can’t run Pakistan from the centre. The army has tried that many times but has failed. After every military takeover, they called back the civilians within three years. On the political front, China is not a role model for Pakistan.


Out of nukes, huge population and geostrategic location, what worries the world the most about an unstable Pakistan?

The nuclear weapons are probably under responsible control. If Pakistan breaks down or some separatist movements succeed, as happened in 1971, then we’ll begin to worry about the nuclear weapons. Pakistan, like North Korea, is “too nuclear to fail,” that is, no one wants to see a real nuclear weapons state disintegrate.

Also Pakistan, like North Korea, uses its nuclear asset and its political fragility as a means to extract concessions from other countries. We’ve contributed to this begging-bowl syndrome, for years. The US should provide aid to Pakistan but link it to more concrete reforms in education, administration, and democratisation. Otherwise we are wasting our time and money. I don’t like the term ‘trust deficit’; trust will grow when there are clear — and public — links between our respective obligations over time.

(Malik Siraj Akbar is a freelance journalist based in Washington DC.)

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, January 15th, 2012.


Abdul Hanan Sheikh | 9 years ago | Reply

I don’t know, but their dilemma is that they cannot live with each other and they cannot live without each other... He meant Pakistan and India and so true it is .

Sajjad | 9 years ago | Reply

"The long-term key to normalising Pakistan is India. The fear of India drives the Pakistan army and the army drives Pakistan."

Firtsly, one cannot take the views of someone like Steve Cohen lightly because he belongs to a strata in the US which influences foreign policy for long periods, sometimes spanning multiple administrations. These are the "think tanks" that routinely inoculate their personnell into governmental institutions.

The above comment is very telling. However, it seems imbalanced. I don't know if he elaborated this point in his book. The important aspect of this thought process, not mentioned here is the role India plays in fanning this paranoia. Indian policy is very deliberate and consistent. I don't subscribe to the age old Pakistani paranoia that lays the blame of evrything on India's doorstep. But clearly India's regional foreign policy is a legitimate cause for concern for ALL its neighbours, not only Pakistan.

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