Why Pakistan is on the brink

Ahmed Rashid

By Antonio Sampaio, Research Assistant, Survival and the Armed Conflict Database, IISS

The supply of gas to the Lahore home of renowned Pakistani journalist and author Ahmed Rashid was cut off six months ago. While hardly one of the most severe problems faced by Pakistanis today, regular energy shortages are but one element of the multidimensional crisis afflicting their country. As Rashid explained during his address to the IISS, behind the international headlines on security and strategic issues lies ‘a dire economic situation’ that is exacerbating regional instability.

According to Rashid, ‘Pakistan’s foreign policy has undermined the state itself, it has created even more splits in the ethnic makeup, it has divided the country.’ Its political and military leadership had failed to implement economic and foreign-policy reform after the Cold War. Instead Pakistan had continued to support proxy armed groups in Kashmir, as well as aiding elements of the Taliban – despite its ongoing fight against different elements of the same group on its territory.

Both the security threat from Islamic militants and the poor outlook for the economy were ‘symptoms of things going very wrong’, stated the author of Pakistan on the Brink: The future of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the West. His bleak assessment of the situation on the ground both in Afghanistan and Pakistan came in the aftermath of two bold moves by the Taliban: a series of coordinated attacks across Kabul and three eastern Afghan provinces and ‘the biggest jailbreak’ in Pakistan’s history, in which almost 400 prisoners were released from a prison in the northwestern town of Bannu.

Pakistan on the Brink is Rashid’s third book on the wars in the so-called ‘AfPak’ region. The nature of the problems might not have changed considerably over the past few years, but the context has: the United States is moving ahead with plans to withdraw combat forces from Afghanistan by 2014, leaving a number of uncertainties. Rashid posed a series of questions: where was the money to pay the Afghan security forces going to come from? How were the neighbouring countries going to contribute to peace? And how would Afghanistan rebuild its economy after ten years of Western failures? Rashid voiced particular concerns about the prospects for peace talks with the Taliban, which are currently stalled. And with the US presidential election looming, there would be little prospect of confidence-building measures by Washington.

With diminishing military and development aid, due in part to the Western economic downturn, Pakistan’s uncompetitive economy was struggling. ‘Globalisation passed us by, high-tech [industries] passed us by … We haven’t been able to constitute a single industry in the country for the last 30 years.’ The country now faced an acute energy crisis – along with the aforementioned shortage of gas supplies, hour-long power outages in major urban centres were common. In a country with a population nearing 200 million, energy and jobs were just as crucial as stopping suicide bombers, Rashid said.

The road ahead, it became clear during Rashid’s address, was permeated with risks. He saw the eventual resumption of talks with the Taliban, despite recent setbacks, as a reason for cautious hope for improvements both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But any steps forward would depend on the implementation of long-delayed reforms; the cycle of distrust that had poisoned regional relations must also be overcome. For better or worse, the coming years were critical if both countries were to make up for the wasted opportunities of the past decades.


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