Michael KreponPakistan’s Choice

Pakistan has been failing for a long time. There have been periods of economic growth, backed up by foreign patrons – mostly the United States and increasingly China — but for the most part, Pakistan’s economy and internal security continue to slide. Successive military and civilian leaders have sidestepped inherited problems or made them worse. Predictions of failure, however, have been wrong, or at least premature. The Pakistani state has demonstrated great resiliency. There have been many opportunities for course corrections that haven’t been taken. Another lies ahead.

Here is a short sampler of predictions and characterizations of state failure in Pakistan:

“An impossible dream that failed.” — James Michener, “A Lament for Pakistan,” New York Times, (1972)

Pakistan “resolutely fails to fail.” — John Keay, Midnight’s Descendants (2014)

“Pakistan is not coming apart at the seams. It is not a failing state. In playing out our acquired habits of thought and action, we are succeeding only too well. No, this is not a failing state, just an irrational state, one that just refuses to abide by the laws of normality.” Columnist Ayaz Amir in The News, December 21, 2012

“Each time Pakistan has been declared ‘failed state’ it has come back from the grave – albeit with a weakened economy, a more fragmented political order, less security in relation to its powerful neighbor, and disturbing demographic and educational trends.” — Stephen Philip Cohen, The Idea of Pakistan, 2005.

“Barring a cataclysmic event or a conjunction of major crises such as a military defeat, a serious economic crisis, and extended political turmoil, the failure of Pakistan as a state can be ruled out. However, failure can still take place slowly or in parts. Pakistan may be unable to maintain minimal standards of ‘stateness.’” – Cohen, The Idea of Pakistan, 2005

“Pakistan is more fragmented than ever before, and the economy is unable to develop enough resources internally to sustain the state system. If these trends continue, Pakistan may lose efficacy and become a nonperforming state in most sectors of society.” Hasan Askari Rizvi in Cohen, The Future of Pakistan (2011)

“In a climate of continuing domestic turmoil, the central government’s control probably will be reduced to the Punjabi heartland and the economic hub of Karachi.” – National Intelligence Council, Global Trends 2015 (2000).

Pakistan is likely to “muddle through or slightly worse. Absent a major unexpected shock, it is not destined to become a ‘failed state.’” – Jonathan Paris, Prospects for Pakistan (2010)

The dynamics of decline have accelerated since President and Army Chief Pervez Musharraf stepped aside. Prime Minister Asif Ali Zardari was elected in 2008 with room to maneuver on domestic issues, but he succeeded mostly by staying in office. Nawaz Sharif became Prime Minister for the third time in 2013. He was also elected by a healthy margin, but has started out badly. Civil-military relations are once again frayed. Internal security threats grow as Musharraf is on trial for treason, even as Nawaz’s government seeks to accommodate violent groups with treasonable agendas.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The Army and intelligence services still do not appear to be on the same page with the government in seeking more normal ties with India. Every firing incident along the Line of Control dividing Kashmir reminds Nawaz that he must reckon with his military when trying to improve ties with India. Pakistan’s diplomatic corps is not known for risk-taking. Distinguished veterans of diplomatic skirmishes with India offer cautionary notes in the press about allowing trade to proceed if other contentious issues languish.

India and Pakistan have agreed to a “composite dialogue” where they discuss trade, strategic, water and humanitarian issues. Many agreements have been drafted but have been gathering dust, including nuclear risk-reduction agreements and military confidence-building measures that could demonstrate responsible nuclear stewardship. None have been concluded since the brazen 2008 siege of Mumbai luxury hotels, a train station, and a Jewish center by militants who took direction from their Pakistani handlers.

The most important agreements, by far, would permit a significant increase in trade across the Punjab and Kashmir, along with seaborne commerce between Karachi and Mumbai. Trade is the lifeline Pakistan needs for economic growth to outpace population growth. For Pakistan to demand progress on multiple fronts before trade deals can be settled would constitute yet another self-inflicted wound.

The time has long since passed when Pakistan has been able to force terms of engagement with India. The campaign by Pakistan’s intelligence services to destabilize the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir was supposed to provide such leverage while pinning down and punishing Indian troops. In reality, India took the punishment while Pakistan lost international standing and suffered blow-back. Pakistan’s standing diminished further after the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament and the 2008 attacks on Mumbai. Pakistan effectively lost these engagements without New Delhi having to fire a shot in retaliation.

A powerful, new Indian government may be ready to propose significant new trade initiatives with Pakistan which may, in turn, prompt spoilers to carry out mass-casualty attacks against more iconic Indian targets. A decision by New Delhi to shelve a major trade initiative in the event of another big explosion that can be traced back to Pakistan would impose a heavy mortgage on Pakistan’s future. The new Indian government might think that this severe punishment is insufficient. Political parties that are in the wilderness for eight or ten years tend to overreach once they regain power. We do not yet know the ways that Narendra Modi’s government will overreach. He might choose to focus hard on economic growth while being dismissive of Pakistan. Or he might not pull his punches after another embarrassing attack.

The arrival of a highly motivated Indian government offers a new chance to improve bilateral relations and avoid another nuclear-tinged crisis on the subcontinent. While the pivot for doing so would be trade, practical results can be accomplished on nuclear risk reduction, easing cross-border travel restrictions, helping Pakistan with its power shortages, and in many other ways – if Pakistan works hard to prevent another spectacular act of terrorism. If Pakistani authorities work hard and fail, they might be granted a free pass. If they stay the course, Pakistan’s decline will accelerate.

As India breaks free from family-based leadership and stale, backward-looking policies, Pakistan has yet to demonstrate that it can dispense with bad military habits, diplomatic clichés, and an absentee ownership-oriented political class. In my view, Pakistan is not a failed state. But it is a failing state – a state whose leaders consistently fail to meet public desires for competent governance. Many other countries fit this mold, but Pakistan is an especially hard case.

Pakistan survives by the forbearance or resignation of its citizens, while muddling through predictions of failure. Changing this narrative would require civilian and military leaders that are on the same page to improve internal security, relations with India, and prospects for economic growth.


  1. wijdan (History)

    Pakistan is responsible nuclear power and a democratic government is in power. The baseless propaganda against Pakistan shows scholarly dishonesty of the writer. Pakistan is more willing to establish good relation with neighbours.

  2. Ali (History)

    All fabrication. You have a wonderful imagination. You should write a book. You are good.

    All Pakistan needs is for the mercenaries to leave… the Western employees also known as politicians to go back to the country where they have stashed their ill gotten wealth. The meaningless “war zone” title removed so that trade ships are not paying war risk insurance when they touch Pakistan and make all our exports less competitive. Our energy strategy i.e. peace pipe line and such not be scuttled by traitors.

    Its that easy. Thereafter, going to number 1 is easy for Pakistan.

    Note. All Pakistanis in every country are No. 1 in their field of going there – even though they are immigrants and not as well educated. That is not a coincidence. Imagine what they can do in their OWN country! If allowed.

  3. Sultan (History)

    Dear Michael,

    There are several optimistic assessments about Pakistan that may also need to be highlighted.

    Even if you want to see only the darker side of the story then it may be appropriate to investigate the genesis of Pakistan’s current woes that lies in the history of wrong choices that we as a nation made by fighting other people’s wars.

    Seems like that our resilience is also frustrating for some of the commentators that you have also selectively used. Pakistan is more than this.

    Just to highlight the discriminatory approach – While Pakistan continues to be crucified for 2008 Mumbai, will someone care to comment on Gujarat massacre in which thousand of Muslims were killed. Will U.S. continue to refuse Visa to the new Indian PM?


  4. P (History)

    Reading the two comments above gave me an idea : their authors may have a point, but not the one they expect.

    What about nationalism?

    You wrote :
    > Pakistan survives by the forbearance or resignation of its citizens,
    but it seems that their leaders have succeeded into creating a national sentiment in their citizen. Without denying nationalism’s potential negative effects, maybe this is the real reason Pakistan has survived so far, and will continue to exist in the future.

  5. Anjaan (History)

    There is no basis for the author to assume that the new Govt. under Modi would overreach … it is pure speculation … Cosmetics aside, the people of India have seen that since the Mumbai massacre in 2008, Pakistan has not shifted an inch from its position, and yet to show any genuine desire, or concrete verifiable action towards peace with India … Modi has made it clear that his reading is not likely to be any different from the people of India …

    The people of India are also aware that Pakistan draws its strength primarily from its closest allies and mentors, Britain and the US, and the massive diplomatic, economic and military support it continues to receive for its major-non-NATO ally status … the logical way to go for India, is to prepare for a long haul … which is precisely what India will be doing under the newly elected Govt.

  6. krepon (History)

    The Pakistan Army and Air Force just made a choice in North Waziristan. Kudos.

    • Asad Khan (History)

      Do not stress yourself with Pakistan’s failure. Let Pakistanis worried about Pakistan, in the meantime please quickly transform Afghanistan into Sweden which the “West” has promised.

      Pakistan has shown resilience in the past and She can sail on its own.


  7. krepon (History)

    Pakistan makes another good choice:

    Press Release

    Prime Minister to visit India

    “In response to the invitation to the oath-taking ceremony of Prime Minister-designate of India, Mr. Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister would be travelling to New Delhi on May 26, 2014. Adviser to the Prime Minister on National Security and Foreign Affairs, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs, Secretary to the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary would accompany the Prime Minister.

    “According to the programme received from India, the Prime Minister will have a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Modi on the morning of 27 May. The Prime Minister would also call on the President of India. The Prime Minister would return to Pakistan in the afternoon of 27 May 2014.”

  8. krepon (History)

    from this am’s NYT:

    “Ms. Aslam, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said on Thursday that the Pakistani authorities saw peace with India as a precondition for economic development.

    “‘We expect that when the new government takes over in India, realizing the importance of having peace in the neighborhood, the dialogue process between Pakistan and India will resume, and that it will be a meaningful and constructive dialogue,’ she said. ‘We expect this dialogue to be uninterrupted and uninterruptible.’”

    Let’s parse this.

    Pakistan wants the composite dialogue to resume. Some in India would want to pick and choose which topics resume (e.g., terrorism and trade). Pakistan is right.

    As for the ‘uninterruptible’ nature of talks, this is like saying that progress would now be ‘irreversible’ — an earlier formulation.

    We all know this prediction can be falsified by one spectacular act of terrorism.


  9. krepon (History)

    Shamshad Ahmad, former Foreign Secretary and usually a reliable reflection of Rawalpindi’s views, wrote the following in an oped (“Democracy and the Modi ‘phenomenon’”) that appeared in the Express Tribune on May 23rd:

    “[Modi’s invitation]to attend his inaugural ceremony will only be seen a patronising gesture from someone who has been speaking of other countries in the region and their leaders with contempt. He must clear this baggage before he can inspire any confidence among his regional interlocutors. Kautilya’s cold-blooded realpolitik does not work any more. Nawaz Sharif must not rush into a hasty Delhi yatra. He must stay home taking care of his domestic agenda. Ceremonies are non-events.”

  10. Rational Analyst (History)

    Putting aside trading blows about Pakistan’s governmental behaviors…

    …Pakistan is not a sustainable state with respect to its population, which is well beyond the carrying capacity of its land and headed much higher. Where will all those people get water? How would Pakistan feed itself without foreign benefactors? Pakistan is on a path to collapse. The people of Pakistan should have practiced replacement-rate family planning many generations ago. I am not picking on Pakistan…here’s looking at you, India, and China, and Malaysia, and Nigeria, and so many more states that will collapse.

    • P (History)

      Yes, so many states that will collapse… Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong-Kong, Monaco, Portugal, Singapore…

      Oh, wait, they’re using trade to import their food.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Looking strictly at population relative to resources, one can see world-wide “collapse” if global warming or other ecological catastrophe reduces food supply significantly, or if global population growth outstrips global food production. Food prices would go up significantly. If Pakistan cannot grow enough food to feed itself under such scenarios, then Pakistan’s economy must be developed enough to produce what others want to buy, so that Pakistan’s food imports would be affordable.

      Another scenario could result directly from nuclear war between Pakistan and India. In addition to millions of direct deaths, another 1-2 billion deaths worldwide from starvation, due to crop reductions from a nuclear-winter-like climate cooling effect, are anticipated. This would cause food prices to sky-rocket, with the additional complication that many food-producing nations might prohibit food exports. Since India and Pakistan are on the poor end, many of these starvation deaths would be in Pakistan and India.

      Both of the above are good reasons for Pakistan to seek peace with India, and to seek out any mutually beneficial trade arrangements.

  11. Saad (History)

    SLAMABAD: Pakistan and China have begun their third joint air exercises, code named “Shaheen-III” at an operational base in Pakistan, a PAF spokesman told Dawn.com on Saturday.

    Kudos to Pakistan Air Force

    Another good choice!!’

    Agree Sir ?

    • krepon (History)



      Pakistan’s signal diplomatic achievement — dating back to the Nixon administration — has been to maintain backing and military pipelines from both the United States and China. Joint exercises are just a small piece of this.

      I can’t think of any other country that has managed both China and the United States so well at the same time.


  12. Saad (History)

    Your qualifying Mr. Shamshad as reflecting Rawalpindi’s views is not very inspiring . He was a Foreign Secretary under previous Nawaz govt and is entitled to give his advice in a doom racy with free media. Disagreement with his views is understandable but branding him in a certain manner because you disagree with him is unprofessional.

  13. Saad (History)


    You made an important point. Pakistan May be geographically embedded with China but it’s society looks west.

    The folks working on Asia Pivot need to understand this !

  14. Anjaan (History)

    @ Mk,
    The reason Pakistan managed to milk both the US and China so efficiently, is a simple one … both the US and China have a common strategic objective, to contain India … and who better than a proxy like Pakistan, that would do your job in exchange of dollars … !!

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Not sure I heard the one about U.S. wanting to “contain” India. Maybe that is a Chinese or Pakistani strategy, not a U.S. strategy. U.S. strategy with Pakistan seems centered on Afghanistan, not India.

  15. Bradley Laing (History)

    MURMANSK – It is of critical importance that two sunken derelict Russian nuclear submarines, one of which was scuttled as radioactive trash and the other of which sank in rough weather on its way to decommissioning, be raised from the floor of the Kara Sea, scholars from Moscow’s Kurchatov Institute said Friday.


    —Does the Russian government have the power to censor this news article? If so, did a government censor let the information through?

  16. Bradley Laing (History)

    PARIS — French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has written to Prime Minister Manuel Valls expressing deep concerns over an expected cut in the defense budget, while the chief of staff and the Air Force, Army and Navy chiefs have offered to resign, daily Le Figaro reported on Thursday…

    There would be severe consequences for the military, particularly for the nuclear deterrent, for a planned order of the Airbus A330 multirole tanker and transport plane and for the Army, which would be under-equipped.


  17. Bradley Laing (History)


    One U.S. cybersecurity expert is arguing that world nations should jointly pledge they will spare civil nuclear facilities from computer attacks for humanitarian reasons.

    Bruce McConnell co-authored a January 2014 report for the EastWest Institute that describes nuclear information security as a “signature security issue of the information age,” decrying that the topic has received too little attention. “There is a moral and political judgment to be made about humanitarian impacts, even in wartime, of potential release of large amounts of radiation by attacking targets like a nuclear power station,” he contends.

  18. Bradley Laing (History)


    —“The Devil is in the Details.”

    From “Aircargonews:”

    By: Nigel Tomkins, managing director

    Five years after Congress set a deadline requiring all US-bound shipping containers to be X-rayed overseas for nuclear weapons, US Customs officials now appear to have given up on the goal.

    Screening 100 per cent of incoming containers would be nearly impossible to implement now, would cause huge delays and be less cost-effective than focusing only on suspicious cargo, observers say.

    More than 30,000 ocean containers arrive at US ports each day and many foreign ports are just not physically equipped to comply.

  19. Bradley Laing (History)

    Hanford iron may help protect Columbia River

    Annette Cary
    Tri-City Herald

    RICHLAND, Wash. — Nature may help protect the Columbia River from some long-lived radioactive contamination at Hanford, according to research at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory campus in Richland.

    Kevin Rosso, the associate director for PNNL’s Physical Sciences Division and other researchers, investigated the ability of iron-rich minerals in Hanford soil to change technetium 99 into a form that sticks in the soil.

    It’s information that Hanford officials might find useful as they make decisions about Hanford cleanup, considering that groundwater may be at higher risk where soil has less iron, Rosso said.