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An optimist’s hope begins to fade

March 14, 2013

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.