Pakistan is attracting a great deal of academic and analytical interest. That is not surprising. Some have called it the most dangerous place on earth. The titles of a number of recent books on Pakistan throw light on the various aspects of a state and society in deep trouble. Anatole Lieven, in Pakistan: a hard country (2011), looks at the social and political structures of a country that, even six-and-a-half decades after achieving independence, is still engaged in the process of creating one nation out of many different people. The ‘hard’ in the book’s title has several meanings. To begin with, the country is not easy to understand. It is full of contradictions: modernisation versus extreme conservatism; asceticism versus love for the good things of life; a tradition of philanthropy versus little regard for the sufferings of the less advantaged; isolationism versus a deep desire to work with the world, in particular the West.
The ‘hard’ also refers to the fact that though torn by numerous conflicts that divide its people, the country keeps muddling through. It is a hard country to put down. What gives it resilience is the set of local loyalties that bind the citizens to the members of the political establishment that, in turn, meet the people’s basic needs and aspirations.
Maleeha Lodhi’s Pakistan beyond the crisis state (2011) is a rare book in the sense that its contributing authors are positive about the country’s future. They believe that the contemporary security challenges and long-term demographic pressures and energy shortages can be overcome if the country’s political establishment can muster the political will to undergo wide-ranging institutional and structural economic reforms. The authors look at what might emerge in the country once the difficulties it faces are overcome. At the end of a long tunnel through which the country is now passing, they see it emerging not very different from a number of other Asian states that have already produced high rates of sustainable GDP growth. They argue that Pakistan is capable of transitioning itself into a stable modern Islamic state, though bold reforms are necessary. The country can be reeled back from the brink of crisis.
According to Ahmed Rashid, the country is already on the brink. His latest book, Pakistan on the brink: the future of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the West (2012), adopts a tone even more somber than his earlier ones. His reading of the Pakistani situation is different from that of Lieven and those of the contributors to Lodhi’s volume. The former sees some resilience in the structure of the Pakistani society, while the latter believe that actions by the ruling establishment can not only save the situation from further deterioration, they can also move the country toward a better future. Rashid, however, is considerably less optimistic. He lays the blame equally on those who have ruled in the past and those who are ruling right now. “They take no responsibility for providing services to the public, while indulging in large-scale corruption. They allow an unprecedented economic meltdown to become worse by declining to carry out reforms or listening to international advice.”
Some of the analytical interest in Pakistan looks at the impact it is likely to have on the world if the crises it faces are not managed. According to Zahid Hussain’s The scorpion’s tail: the relentless rise of Islamic militancy and how it threatens America (2010), Pakistan carries a lot of poison stored in its body. Provoked, it will sting. Having delivered the poison it carries it may die, as scorpions are said to do once they have attacked, but its sting could prove to be fatal for its victim. Stephen Cohen’s The Future of Pakistan (2011), (which he has edited) does not believe, at least according to the volume’s editor, that the country has much of a future. But, in line with Zahid Hussain, the editor of this rather depressing volume suggests that this highly troubled South Asian nation will go a long way toward determining what the world looks ten years from now. They advise the world to watch Pakistan closely and prepare for the worst.
To this list of recently publishedbooks we should add the World Bank’s World Development Report, 2010 which comes with the subtitle, Conflict, Security and Development . While not entirely focused on the situation in Pakistan, It sees the country belonging to the category of what it calls “fragile states”. The Bank’s report has one powerful message: that there is enough evidence from around the globe to suggest that the fragility of the states it examines need not result in their failure. They can recover but will need to be kept on life support for years to come.
There is one thing common to all these analyses. They focus on many crises Pakistan currently faces. It is a perfect storm through which the country will have to navigate. Whether it can go through without capsizing will depend on how the Pakistani establishment is able to steer the state towards the safety of a shore. What will help those in command is to develop a better appreciation of the nature of the many crises they must deal with. They should also have some idea about the way the country dealt with crises in the past.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 30th, 2012.