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An optimist’s hope begins to fade

Published Mar 14, 2013 08:58am


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When it comes to Pakistan, I tend to be an optimist.

When observers speak of the nation overflowing with arms and violence, I say it also overflows with untapped mineral resources. When they say the country’s youth bulge will fill the ranks of extremist organisations, I say it can also fill jobs. When they depict Pakistan as a supermarket for international terrorism, I describe it as an emerging hub for global IT services. When they fixate on militants like Hafiz Saeed, I focus on pragmatists like Hafeez Shaikh. And when they decry the deep influence of Malik Ishaq, I declare that Malala Yousafzai’s name resonates much more.

In effect, I dare to utter the words “Pakistan” and “potential” in the same breath.

In this spirit of hope, I recently wrote that the resiliency of the Pakistani people prevents the country from falling apart — and if the state can step up, the country can avert disaster.

Increasingly, however, I fear I’m not being hopeful — only hopelessly naïve.

This epiphany was triggered by several disturbing images. Long War Journal has posted horrific footage of TTP fighters beheading Pakistani soldiers and brandishing — by the hair — a severed head.

This footage materialised just as many within Pakistan’s political class were expressing their willingness to negotiate with the TTP. It’s one thing to negotiate with insurgents; it’s quite another to do so with savages — who, incidentally, have reneged on previous peace agreements with Islamabad. How can one be hopeful, given that a consensus is emerging among Pakistan’s politicos to negotiate with the epitome of inhumanity?

Then there are the infamous images of a marauding mob burning homes — and crosses — in a Christian neighborhood of Lahore. We don’t see hooded arsonists trying to stay out of sight. Instead, we see uncovered, beaming faces — many of them preening for the cameras. They have no reason to hide their identities, because they assume they’ll enjoy total impunity.

And for good reason. This is a nation where vigilantes enter girls’ schools and beat students for not covering their heads — while police stand by and admit they’ve been ordered “to do nothing.” And where police took hours to respond to the Lahore house burnings (though they reportedly wasted little time harassing kite-flying kids).

In short, Pakistan is a nation where law enforcement — and the political leadership from which it flows — is sorely missing in action.

For this reason, it’s fashionable to say that Pakistan’s problems boil down to a leadership crisis. Elect better leaders, the reasoning goes, and things will improve. If the state steps up, the country can be saved.

I fear, however, that it may be too late for better leadership. Imagine for a moment that the ideal government — committed to providing for the masses, willing to part ways with so-called strategic assets, and prepared to defy vested interests — sweeps into office. What would it face?

It would face extremist ideologies so powerful that credible commentators now compare Pakistan to Nazi Germany, and suggest it could eventually resemble genocidal Rwanda. A brave new leadership would also confront the reality that today’s troubles are rooted in deep-seated dilemmas unresolved since independence — including the struggle to define the relationship between Islam and national identity.

It appears that Pakistan’s perils are too ingrained and structural to be expunged by even the most exceptional of leaders. Increasingly, I fear that only two scenarios can prevent Pakistan from one day succumbing to Balkanisation or even utter chaos – and they are neither likely nor desirable. One is a repressive dictatorship that keeps a lid on Pakistan’s sectarian cleavages and violence — much like the Saddam Hussein reign did in Iraq. The sole Pakistani institution capable of implementing such a regime is the military and Rawalpindi certainly — and wisely — has no plans to do so (though if the security situation further deteriorates in the years ahead, all bets are off).

The other scenario is a full-scale revolution that brings down the Pakistani state and its institutions as we’ve known them. The noted Indian strategist Brahma Chellaney has suggested the need for one to rid his own country of the rot of corruption: “It may take a second war of independence for India to gain true freedom from exploitation and pillage.”

Of course, such a revolution is as unrealistic and unwanted in Pakistan as it is in India. Pakistan is too fragmented to experience any type of mass movement, much less a revolution. And it would destroy the many good things — most notably a fragile democracy — that have taken root in recent years.

So, I’m left with the troubling thought that Pakistan is edging inevitably closer to an abyss — and I shudder to think what happens when it takes this plunge.

As my optimism fades, one hope remains resolute: that I’m proven wrong.


The author is the Senior Program Associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. You can reach him at



The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


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Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He can be reached at or on Twitter @michaelkugelman

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (45) Closed

salman Mar 14, 2013 01:32pm

I too suffer from the curse of an eternal optimist. Just can not give up hope. I however, disagree with you, Pakistan's problem DOES boil down to leadership. It is the rot in the leadership that has brought this wonderful nation to its knees. Leadership HAS to change and by God it WILL change Insha

Elect Mar 14, 2013 02:01pm

You are quite correct in the analysis , yesterday a friend of mine told me that people in pakistan are not saying pakistan zindabad but pakistan say zinda bhag -

Malang Baba Mar 14, 2013 09:23am

Hi Michael,

You started off very well with lots of optimisms with examples and likes of Malala. You had me at the edge of my seat.

But then at the end you simply said good-bye to us by lamenting that you are left with the troubling thought that Pakistan is edging inevitably closer to an abyss.

Basically, that's where we are all right now. So there does not seem to be anything new up on the horizon. I have faith though in a mystical revolution of one kind or another in the making but still some distance away.

Majority Mar 14, 2013 09:23am

The article captures the state of affairs well and among the fading optimists are also many progressive, tolerant and level headed Pakistanis who make up for all that is good in the country. The situation is very dangerous and sad. The resilience of the tolerant forces will not hold long when all that matters is the "democracy" bought by the of votes of militant organisations enjoying state protection and jingoism at its peak!

raika45 Mar 14, 2013 09:24am
Well written sir. Indeed the community outside Pakistan is watching in apprehension as the country slowly disintegrates while the people and leadership in Pakistan seem to have no such worry.To them it is business as usual.
Ali Mar 14, 2013 12:18pm
It's a bitter truth. As a Pakistani it's becoming too difficult to think positively; however, where there is life there is hope. Really hope and pray that all the fears, apprehensions, analysis and forecasts are proven wrong and suffering of the people of Pakistan go away. Albeit most of the suffering is self inflected, have to say this sadly.
Cyrus Howell Mar 14, 2013 03:26pm
Every economic gain Pakistan makes will be erased by population growth. This is a fact whether we are optimistic or pessimistic in view point. Pakistan cannot catch up with the Western countries economically without reducing the population. The illusion remains that the population is doing well because the elite are doing well. The hook is that if you work hard you will have what they have. The future is bright. No sane person believes that any more.
Md Imran Mar 14, 2013 03:35pm
Dear Sir, all we need to do is reverse the brain drain. Look around you..from US, Canada to Middle East Pakistanis have contributed immensely to the economies of their adapted nations. Ask yourself where would NASA, Google, IBM or US Healthcare be without Pakistani engineers or doctors ? Where would the UK NHS and investment banks be without Pakistani physicians and bankers ? Where would scandinavian economies be without Pakistani immigrants ? Inshaallah, we'll reverse this brain drain soon, and not just that, we need to attract talent from other ummah nations too. We can then truly be a superpower instead of just a islamic-nuclear superpower ( no mean feat that ).
Tariq Mar 14, 2013 05:31pm
The comparison to Nazi germany is misplaced. I see the appeasement lobby (led by Imran Khan) as a bunch of Neville Chamberlains, and the Taliban as the the Nazis. What Pakistan needs is a leader like Winston Churchill. Someone who will tell the nation that you simply cannot reason with evil. Evil must be fought and defeated. A couple of Churchill quotes that aptly describe the present situation in Pakistan: An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile
Mohammad Faizan Memon Mar 14, 2013 06:37pm
Great piece Mr.Author. Let the truly depicted optimist not get the hope faded;not this time,at least.
FactCheck Mar 14, 2013 06:41pm
I prefer to stick with hard facts, logic, and statistical analysis, not media hype or foreign propaganda. Every crime statistic points to the fact that Pakistan's crime and misery problem does not begin to compare with the supposed giants of democracy like the US, Israel, and India. Pakistan has an image problem, often aggravated by its own press. A single report printed here is quoted and repeated with spicy 'add-on' around the world and on the Internet ad-nauseum without verification. In other countries such news is ho-hum everyday thing and repressed. United nation's peer review reports don't hype does. And Pakistan is stressed, under attack from many quarters. That it is not even allowed an economic decision such as the Iran-Pakistan Peace Pipeline to Progress without severe reprimand, penalty and ultimate threat...imposing sanction is an act of war; it destroys a country and kills it peoples and prosperity by suffocation and strangulation rather than a blitzkrieg bombing invasion. The effect is even more deadly.
AhmedR Mar 14, 2013 06:55pm
@salman true...Not Just Yet.... Yes...against all odds....Not just Yet.....
rich Mar 14, 2013 07:24pm
the pop density of pakistan is far less then india or japan so population is not an issue, utilising this capital is an issue israeal, japn are desperately trying to increase their population
MAB Mar 14, 2013 07:54pm
I do hope that youmand thus me are both wrong about Pakistan.
Ozz Mar 14, 2013 08:58pm
You're right: sane people don't believe that any more. And yet they keep on 'producing' more and more children.....
Atheoi Mar 14, 2013 09:17pm
Only revolution Pakistan needs is that people start analyzing within their own hearts what religon in statehood is giving them vs what it is taking away. The jump to Abyss or a leap to progress depends on one decision as a nation i.e. Lets make religon a personal matter outlawaing all political semi-political or non-political voiloent or non voilent movements and parties who are using religon as a toll to brainwash people.
Aan Mar 14, 2013 10:04pm
I can only laugh at the naivete of this statement. Reverse the brain drain? What does the state even have to offer its best and brightest that it can start calling them back? You, Sir, are talking about a "superpower" that can barely provide basic amenities for its people and fulfill the basic functions of a state, not to mention one that is so intolerant as to disparage it's only Nobel prize winner on the basis of his beliefs (namely, Dr. Abdus Salam). Before you can begin to start attracting back your talent you need to offer them more than the empty rhetoric of patriotism and religion.
Thoughtful Mar 14, 2013 11:17pm
A brilliant and realistic piece Michael! Unfortunately, your optimism regarding Pakistan is going to dissipate. It is a common practice to blame the problems of Pakistan on the politicians but one should not forget that these politicians are elected by the very people of Pakistan. In order to survive and progress, a nation requires certain characters and unlike, other nations a good majority of Pakistanis are ethically and morally bankrupt. They do not have any kind of conscience or integrity. They have very low self esteem and this leads to bragging and unnatural talks like Md Imran in one of the comments posted here. The nations can only progress if they realize their strengths and weaknesses and measure them in a balanced way. Unfortunately, the Pakistanis have this amazing view that they are the best and will progress with their kind of immoral and ancient cultural practices. No nation with this kind of rotten intelligence and deeply rooted ignorance can survive and one should not be even thinking that Pakistan as a nation will survive. In fact, disintegration of Pakistan by external forces is a better solution because it may save millions from being slaughtered by the savage Talibans and their sympathizers.
Ram Krishan Sharma Mar 15, 2013 12:45am
All Indians ( Hindu , Muslim , Sikh , Christian and Parsi and others) wish for a stable , peace loving and successful Pakistan where the rule of law prevails and all minorities are equal in law. This can only happen when mullas stop reciting hate prayers in mosques against those who do not accept Islam as the religion given by God.
Sheikh. Mar 15, 2013 12:46am
I concur with this salman person. The actions of a few disgruntled lynchers or war hardened criminals does not reflect the modus-operandi or an entire people of 190 million. Decent people still live in this country and in the future, they will prove so by choosing better leadership. Also, Kugelman... watch less TV.
Tanveer Mar 15, 2013 02:33am
Every morning I Iravel to my office on a ricshaw driven by a 85 years old pathan driver. We cross the most dangerous areas of Karachi and when I disembark and give him the fare he smiles pockets the money without counting. He greets me with a smile and leaves me after smiling and thanking me. Pakistan will survive.
Riaz Mar 15, 2013 02:38am
You cannot grow seeds in to trees if there is no soil and no water. You cannot build a nation where there is no civil society, no system, no law, no morals and no ethics. Prosperity will not take root in a culture of chaos. Optimism that turns in to reality is based on realism and not emotional wishful thinking.
hyderphd74 Mar 15, 2013 03:06am
Mr. Md Imran. Please leave the expatriates where they are living. Or do you want them to come back and be assassinated by the savage and barbaric groups that are freely doing such acts. Please have mercy on their lives. Let them live peacefully in the country they have chosen to live. Alive, they can contribute something to some country. Dead, they only will make the likes of Taliban etc. happy. The Talibans will have more heads to brandish and would have a feast of their life time. These entities want to take Pakistan to the stone age. They simply can not tolerate any intelligentsia. Their belief that education corrupts and makes a person kafir will never change. They themselves are so utterly illiterate (never mind that some of them have college degrees) and woefully devoid of any semblance of common sense, that they can not think straight with their deviated minds. Pakistan's only hope for survival and to loosen herself from the ever-tightening grip of these animals is to find a way to completely annihilate them. Whatever it may take to do the job it has to be done and needs to be done sooner rather than later. There is not much time left.
kaiser waziri Mar 15, 2013 03:47am
I am a highly educated individual whose skills are keenly sought by every country in the world. I love Pakistan and tried to settle in Pakistan four times in the past 20 years. Every time I go back I lose millions to swindlers, crooked Government employees and Kabza groups and made into a pauper. I am left with no choice but to leave the country I dearly love and seek employment in North America or Europe. Would I go back to the country of my dreams the fifth time. I am not too sure!
malik Mar 15, 2013 03:48am
I have given up on Pakistan long time ago. I am not returning until it turns into a normal country; which means never.
kanak Mar 15, 2013 04:50am
Why does the author have to bring India into picture where the protests are against corruption at high places. Pakistan's basic problem is law and order and that is the least of India's problems.The author who was always ignoring basic problem of Pakistan i.e. law and order seems to have realised it. But then he has become another doomsayer which may not hold as Pakistan still holds enormous potential to emerge well. People die but nations normally do not.
Ali Mar 15, 2013 05:58am
All these countries are equal opportunity providers. Ir-respective of your ethinic background or place of origin. No discrimination of any kind. The circumstances, the situations and fair playing ground with set of rules and regulations laid open for every one to avail and acheive what they like to. All these doctors, engineers and other professionals of Pakistani origin that you see and meet have reached to their positions working hard and availing the opportunities . How can Pakistan claim any credit in individual's success outside of Pakistan. Infact, majority of them have fled Pakistan due to various reasons and sufferings and many more are willing to leave Pakistan anxiously waiting for the opportune time. Just naming a city "Islamabad" does not make the place (read country) holy.
Ahmed Mar 15, 2013 06:44am
You sir, are the most intellectually lazy person i've ever known. No wonder you are overwhelmed by negativity! I wish you could just say one positive word about pakistan.
Masood Mar 15, 2013 07:42am
Hit the nail on the head. Even though I might be living in the 'privileged bubble' I can see the hopelessness on the streets brought on simply by desperation and powerlessness. I had recently moved back to Pakistan after a 10 year stay in UK and decided to move back due to the worsening economic situation in Europe. Its been a year and although Pakistan is still very much the land of opportunity in terms of business, its once relatively stable situation has become highly unstable. It reminds me of when Bhutto was coming in to power in the mid-nineties. It truly saddens me and even though all signs point to the aforementioned abyss I still very much remain an optimist albeit a cautious one.
Rizwan Mar 15, 2013 08:51am
Quite an optmist you are! What is your advice for the people of Pakistan?
Siyalkotia Mar 15, 2013 08:52am
@Md Imran You are not serious, are you ???
Siyalkotia Mar 15, 2013 08:54am
For example ?
cameo Mar 15, 2013 09:07am
It would be wrong to compare Pakistan with Nazi Germany. We are not half as efficient as the Germans. Rwanda on the other hand is completely plausible.
John Mar 15, 2013 09:10am
You wrote: "Where would NASA, Google, IBM or US Healthcare be without Pakistani engineers or doctors ? Where would the UK NHS and investment banks be without Pakistani physicians and bankers ? Where would scandinavian economies be without Pakistani immigrants ?" Seriously? What color is the sky in your world?
cameo Mar 15, 2013 09:14am
you are talking rubbish..
Subramanyam Sridharan Mar 15, 2013 10:46am
You have cited two recent incidents that punctured your eternal optimism, namely the picture of TTP beheading Pakistani soldiers, and the burning down of a Christian neighbourhood in Lahore. Yet, such incidents have repeatedly happened in Pakistan in the last decade, with even more brutality at times, and your eternal optimism never waned. Why then suddenly now ?
Farah Mar 15, 2013 11:13am
it should survive rather, for the sake of your rickshaw driver
wasalam Mar 15, 2013 02:21pm
You are misleading by quoting population density. Almost half of Pakistan is Balochistan which is mostly inhabitable and only 2% of the population of Pakistan lives in Balochistan, 98% of the population is crammed into the remaining space, an area of the size of California. A country of the size of Pakistan should have a population under 50 million or roughly 1/4th of current level to achieve any kind of prosperity.
Najam Mar 15, 2013 02:46pm
I ask the same question why would State of Pakistan or for that matter any other state negotiate with terrorists when they are not willing to give up violence, recognize the supremacy of the State, and uphold the law and face the court for their crimes. These are only condition that should precede any talks.
v Mar 15, 2013 03:20pm
This comment is precious! You have left me speechless with the sheer scale of your delusion.
zubin Mar 15, 2013 03:23pm
It would be a miracle if Pakistan can save itself from disintegration in the next few years. I am sure if the fundamental forces take over, the silent majority who are mostly peaceful will not keep quiet. What will be interesting to see is if Punjab being the smaller province compared to Balochistan gets to keep all the nukes. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, Russia being the largest got to keep the nukes.
Peace Mar 15, 2013 03:41pm
I salute your optimism my friend... Wish there are more like you in Pakistan... All is not lost ... not just yet... Eventhough i'm from India i hope Pakistan overcomes its obstacles and stands on its own feet for that it needs more optimists like you who would act in this hour of need...
Tahira, California Mar 15, 2013 07:35pm
I sympathize with you and totally understand your view. HEC had a good program of hiring experienced foreign nationals of Pak origin for short periods so they could make important changes to Pak education. I was one such hiree. From day one, I met fierce opposition from faculty of 2 universities who thought I should take over the teaching of their toughest courses instead of carrying out my project on modern methods of teaching science. Several times in 3 years, I was on the verge of quitting but the students wanted to learn from me and enjoyed it. This gave me hope. Since I left 4 years ago, I am not sure any change has occurred in the old old ways of teaching from the notes taken by the teacher in his own student days. This shows a lot of trust in their teachers of old but no interest in finding out where the world is going. May they change for the better soon.
Charles Macguire Mar 15, 2013 10:00pm
Buddy Not sure where have u read that the NASA, Google, IBM or US Healthcare is filled with Pakistani engineers or doctors or UK NHS and investment banks are filled with Pakistani physicians and bankers . I have lived and worked in all these countries (in some of the organizations mentioned by you) and hardly come across any pakistani worth mentioning. Even if there were few they did not wised to be identified as Pakistani. So stop smoking that joint and see the real world.
Alamgir Mar 16, 2013 07:26am
Imran sahab has told the truth; Pakistan has already defeated the sole superpower USA and without the genius of Pakistanis like Dr. A.Q. Khan, the so-called advanced countries will be nowhere. The author and the commenters here have been befooled by cunning and jealous Hindus. It is part of an international conspiracy to wage psychological warfare on Pakistan. Don't fall for it, my fellow countrymen!