Since its birth in 1947, Pakistan has lived in constant turmoil. Conceived as a democracy, it has been ruled by the military for amost half its life. Engaged in off-and-on talks with its traditional foe India, its leaders have deep suspicions of the fellow nuclear power next door that continue to drive national priorities. Even as it allows notorious Islamic militants to operate on its soil, the world’s sixth-most populous nation has developed an emerging middle class as well as an increasingly independent judiciary and news media. It is both a fragile state and a modernizing society.
Another turbulent chapter was etched in Pakistan's political history in July with the ousting of Nawaz Sharif as prime minister for the third time in his career. Corruption charges stemming from the so-called Panama Papers led to his downfall, though eyebrows were raised when the investigative team into the claims — a civilian legal matter — included members from military bodies. Nawaz, who denied the allegations, was deposed by a military coup in 1999 and there is great mistrust between his family and the military establishment. The armed forces have ruled Pakistan for much of its 70 years and have entrenched positions in the economy through land ownership and shareholdings in large corporations, along with an oversized sway on foreign policy. The generals bristled at Sharif’s efforts to improve relations with India and Afghanistan, which have not borne fruit. U.S. President Donald Trump stepped up pressure on Pakistan with a warning in August to stop harboring terrorists or risk losing funding. The nation faces increased financial stress and devalued its currency in December to address widening trade and current account deficits. Shahid Khaqan Abbasi — a Sharif loyalist who is interim premier until elections are held in August — says political turmoil is deterring international investors, as corruption investigations against top members of the ruling party continue and after religious protests in the capital Islamabad flared.
Carved out of mostly Hindu India as a homeland for Muslims when India gained independence from Britain, Pakistan has experienced three successful military coups. Even when elected governments have ruled, the military, especially the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, has played a forceful role. The government has made major investments in a nuclear arsenal although many citizens still lack access to clean drinking water or a toilet. India routinely accuses Pakistan of backing anti-India militants in the fight over the border state Kashmir. Pakistan supported the Taliban in the early 1990s to subvert Afghanistan’s Soviet-backed government. Its continued patronage after the Taliban took over in 1996 ensured an ally to the west to counter India looming in the east. After a 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan brought to power a government friendlier to India, Taliban remnants found refuge in Pakistan. So did al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden — until U.S. forces killed him in a 2011 raid. The policy of using extremists to pursue strategic goals has blown back on Pakistan. Militant groups have metastasized and struck within the country, largely against security forces and Muslims of the minority Shiite sect. By one estimate, more than 62,000 people have died in terrorist violence in Pakistan since 2003, including an attack in 2014 in which 132 students were killed at an army-run school in Peshawar.
One view of Pakistan holds that the military’s dominance is irreversible. In this judgment, the generals don’t want to stop cross-border attacks by extremists or allow peace initiatives to succeed because they distrust their neighbors, and they can’t afford to because they need tumult to justify their budgets and power. Accordingly, it’s not surprising that the anti-terror campaign has focused on groups that target Pakistan rather than India. Another perspective is that Pakistan’s turbulence is part of the growing pains of a young, Islamic democracy that is maturing. In 2009, a nationwide movement by the country’s lawyers restored an ousted Supreme Court chief justice. Afterwards, courts removed a prime minister for defying a court order. While threats from militants make journalism a dangerous occupation, Pakistan’s media have grown to be a robust force. The nation’s middle class is expanding and its benchmark stock index performed so well before 2017 that MSCI Inc. included Pakistan's equities in its benchmark indexes the same day it rejected mainland China's in 2016. A nascent youth culture promotes art, music and women’s participation in the economy.
The Reference Shelf
- A QuickTake Q&A on Sharif's downfall.
- Former U.S. diplomat John R. Schmidt’s book “The Unraveling: Pakistan in the Age of Jihad” explains how Pakistan became a haven for militant groups.
- A paper by the International Crisis Group explores Pakistan’s counter-terrorism campaign.
- A U.S. Congressional Research Service report examines the issues affecting U.S.-Pakistan relations.
Tom Lasseter contributed to an earlier version of this story.
First published Oct. 15, 2014
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