What ails Pakistan? Why, throughout its 52 years, has it experienced nearly constant political instability? Pakistan has already suffered four military coups, the most recent of which startled the world last October. The country suffers from endemic social, political, and economic ills, all of which its various civilian and military regimes have proven incapable of handling.

Pakistan's problems appear especially stark next to India, its neighbor and long-time adversary. Of course, India can hardly brag about its record in avoiding ethnic violence, fueling economic development, or promoting social justice. But unlike Pakistan, India's military remains under firm civilian control; state and national elections are basically free and fair; the judiciary staunchly protects its independence; and the Indian press remains unhindered and, at times, even feisty. India has hewed toward democracy, while Pakistan is ever veering toward authoritarian rule. What led Pakistan into this mess, and so soon after its founding? And how will it ever get out?

Pakistan's woes matter not just to the Indian subcontinent but to America as well. Pakistan is a nuclear state with crushing economic problems, a burgeoning population, and few effective civilian institutions. It abuts two regions of the world, the Persian Gulf and Central Asia, that are flash points in America's battles over oil, terrorism, and drugs. Pakistan wields major influence in the growing Islamist movement in Central Asia and the surrounding regions. If Pakistan collapsed, refugees would flood into India and Iran, and Afghanistan's stability would be further undermined. Worse yet, any further weakening of the state could leave Pakistan's nuclear arsenal vulnerable to terrorists.


Most of Pakistan's current travails can easily be traced to the nationalist movement that forged the state in 1947. The All-India Muslim League, the major Muslim party in colonial India, led the transition to the newly formed Pakistan under Mohammed Ali Jinnah, a secular, charismatic lawyer and politician. The League was an elitist organization from the start and remained so after independence. Although the party claimed to represent the interests of all Muslims in the British Indian empire, its upper echelons were composed mostly of Muslim gentry from the northern Indian heartland.

Unlike the leaders of the Indian National Congress, Jinnah and his colleagues made no effort to democratize their party; doing so would have undermined the League's main supporters, wealthy landowners. As a consequence, the League arrived in the newly independent state ill-equipped to form any type of representative government. It had neither a commitment to democracy nor a well-defined system for addressing the nation's diverse interests.

Pakistan did not even draft a constitution until 1954 -- seven years after independence. This constitution had to be set aside after powerful individuals with a contempt for democratic processes and differing views on the role of Islam held up its adoption. Meanwhile, West Pakistan (which included three-fifths of the colonial state of Punjab) and East Pakistan (which included two-thirds of pre-independence Bengal) fought over how political power should be delegated. Only after a second constituent assembly convened in 1956 did Pakistan finally adopt a national constitution. Yet the weakness of this and succeeding constitutions and the constant disputes over political power contributed to the bloody divorce of the country's eastern and western halves in 1971.


The Muslim League's incompetence in governing Pakistan allowed the civilian bureaucracy to usurp significant powers. With Pakistan's independence came numerous problems, including disputes over the division of assets with India, the settlement of Muslim refugees, and the maintenance of public order. In addressing these problems, the country's leaders relied increasingly on the civilian bureaucracy. Yet this bureaucracy -- highly elitist and composed mostly of colonial-era civil servants -- was contemptuous of the politicians and had little use for parliamentary democracy. Furthermore, unlike their Muslim counterparts in India, who could not afford to alienate the ruling Congress Party, Pakistan's bureaucrats knew that the Muslim League lacked nationwide support -- especially after Jinnah's death in 1948.

Faced with sectarian, economic, and political challenges, the bureaucracy saw itself as the ultimate arbiter of Pakistan's fate and soon linked itself to the army. This military-bureaucratic collaboration proved lethal to the development of other institutions. The legislative branch remained sapless, the judiciary withered, and the press stultified. Successive prime ministers depended on the support of the army to maintain public order.

Amid this political chaos, General Mohammad Ayub Khan launched Pakistan's first military coup in October 1958. Although Ayub initially achieved a degree of stability, he did little to strengthen democratic institutions or expand political participation. Even the discrediting of his regime in the wake of Pakistan's 1965 war with India did not bring democracy to the state. By this time, democratic institutions had been thoroughly constricted. The antidemocratic proclivities of the bureaucracy became entrenched, economic policy continued to benefit only a small coterie of Pakistan's elite families, and judicial independence remained weak. And, as was proven again last October, the military remained the most powerful institution in Pakistan.


When the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), Pakistan's principal counterintelligence body, entered the political scene, it bolstered the position of the military within the Pakistani state apparatus. The ISI's power and resources grew dramatically under the military dictatorship of General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, who engineered Pakistan's third military coup in 1977. Zia used the ISI to support favored mujahideen groups during the Afghan war and also as a domestic surveillance tool against potential political rivals.

Under Zia, the ISI operated with little regard for legislative or judicial scrutiny. This lack of accountability remained even after Zia was succeeded by the putatively democratic regime of Benazir Bhutto. The ISI has tinkered with Pakistan's electoral process, as when it supported now-deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's successful 1990 bid for office by undermining his opponents. Elected regimes have failed to take control of the ISI or extend the writ of habeas corpus to individuals who run afoul of it.

Meanwhile, the intelligence agency remains deeply involved with the Taliban in Afghanistan and supports some of the more vicious Islamist groups, such as the Harkat ul-Mujahideen, in their terrorist activities in Kashmir. The ISI acts as an independent organization with its own interests and, to the country's detriment, its own foreign policy. It is dismissive of governing regimes, especially civilian ones. Unfortunately, the ISI's work is nudging Pakistan toward the West's list of terrorist states.


The tasks facing General Pervez Musharraf, leader of the October coup and now self-declared "chief executive" of the country, are enormous. Despite his solemn promises and patriotic rhetoric, it is unlikely that Musharraf will be able to ease Pakistan's deep-rooted malaise in the short period of time that the West will tolerate his unelected rule. Already, the British Commonwealth has voted to keep Pakistan out of its proceedings until democracy takes hold. The longer Musharraf stays in power, the less likely it will be for civilian institutions to make a comeback. The record of military regimes in this hapless country offers little comfort.

On December 15, 1999, after about two months in office, Musharraf made a key policy address that described Pakistan's troubled economy and the steps his administration had taken to tackle it. His speech, surprisingly, also contained important sops for disadvantaged Pakistanis. For instance, he increased the amount of compensation given to relatives of deceased government employees, made government land available to landless peasants, and deferred electricity payments from agricultural users. His agenda was nothing short of ambitious. But in a marked departure from his three military predecessors, he did not discuss the possibility of returning Pakistan to democracy. He promised to improve existing government institutions and create new, more efficient ones -- although most plans were limited to revenue collection.

Saving Pakistan will require more than the standard palliative measures that previous civilian and military regimes have taken. Musharraf alone -- despite his widespread support from the military and much of the public -- cannot bring about the necessary structural transformation. Any significant reform will require widespread internal efforts and international pressure.

Economics is foremost among the country's problems. Economic growth has faltered and is now incapable of keeping pace with Pakistan's annual population growth rate of nearly 3 percent. By the late 1990s, annual GDP growth had plummeted to about 3 percent, from about 6 percent in the 1980s. Heavy taxation and high tariffs have choked industrial productivity, which lags at 1.8 percent per year. State-owned banks, which were encouraged by Sharif to aid political loyalists in spite of their questionable collateral, are sandbagged with defaulted loans totaling nearly $3.5 billion. Foreign investment had dropped to less than $1 billion by 1996-97. And following the May 1998 nuclear tests, economic sanctions imposed by the United States and other nations reduced even this paltry amount. More than 50 percent of Pakistan's budget is presently earmarked for debt servicing.

Musharraf has focused his attention, so far, on pursuing defaulters on loans issued by government-owned banks. He has also created the National Accountability Bureau to pursue tax evaders. But the general has skirted the politically contentious issue of taxing the agricultural sector, which contributes some 25 percent of the country's GDP and employs some 60 percent of the population. Because of the enormous political power held by Pakistan's feudal landowners, agricultural income remains mostly untaxed. As a professional soldier dependent on a technocratic cabinet -- and unbeholden to rural electoral support -- Musharraf is the best candidate to finally confront the outdated status of Pakistan's landed gentry.

Of course, reforms should not be limited to the economy. Musharraf must begin to build institutions of good governance by establishing judicial independence, promoting press freedom, and improving the government's health care and education programs. He must also remove several layers of institutional rot. One important starting point is the ISI, which has dictated the fortunes of Pakistan's civilian governments. Musharraf must rein in its activities and limit its domestic mandate to counterintelligence. To ensure the subordination of the ISI, Musharraf will have to sever Pakistan's ties to Islamist movements, partly by curbing their fundraising, organizing, and other public activities.


Not only should Musharraf break ties with external Islamist movements, he must also redefine his treatment of religious zealots living in Pakistan. The current policy, which seeks to curb the Islamists' powers at home while supporting their activities in Kashmir, is untenable. Any encouragement of these groups simply contributes to their growing power -- inside and outside the country. Islamist organizations such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba have grown extraordinarily powerful within Pakistan. Relying on them to pursue Islamabad's security goals is an inherently dangerous strategy. Once given a taste of power, most Islamist groups are unlikely to be contained within Pakistan's rickety political order. Sectarian cleavages already exist within the Pakistani military. Many midlevel officers raised under Zia share the religious zeal of the fundamentalists. Encouraging religious fanaticism of any sort could fragment the army.

Containing the power of the Lashkar-e-Toiba and similar groups will require the regime to adopt a radically new policy toward the festering Kashmir issue. Since its independence Pakistan has sought to wrest Kashmir from India, at considerable human and material cost. But it is no closer to realizing this goal than it was in the late 1940s. Musharraf, the architect of Pakistan's military disaster in Kargil last summer, needs to drop this futile quest.

More than other factors, the crushing burden of military spending demands that Musharraf resolve the Kashmir issue. According to economist Omar Noman, 80 percent of Pakistan's total debt was accumulated under military regimes; currently, the military budget consumes roughly 40 percent of government expenditures. Unless Musharraf improves relations with India -- and this means resolving Kashmir -- the two countries will remain locked in a defense-spending race. India's substantially larger and more diversified industrial base, its higher rates of growth, and its manifestly greater military strength make such a competition suicidal for Pakistan.

Engaging India could also help Pakistan address its other problems. Even limited improvements in bilateral relations, especially regarding Kashmir, would decrease external economic pressures, as the West is likely to reward Pakistan's cooperation by easing sanctions. Improvements in Indo-Pakistani relations -- even small ones -- might dampen the distrust and hostility that have driven the development of full-fledged nuclear arsenals.


The United States can play a useful role in promoting these goals. But mere public hectoring may actually postpone attempts to solve the underlying sources of instability. The United States, other major powers, and India have no choice but to work with Musharraf's regime, for it is in the interest of all states concerned to prevent Pakistan's deterioration. The necessity of working with this regime, however, should not translate into an absolution of the military for bringing Pakistan to its current sorry state. Outside powers must use every available diplomatic, economic, and normative lever to push for structural reforms that will weaken the military's domestic power and promote long-term economic growth. Piecemeal efforts, such as granting bilateral economic assistance, providing multilateral loans, or resuming military-to-military ties, will offer little long-term help to the anemic state. Before long, a new crisis will envelop the country; by then, Pakistan might be too far gone for outside actors to help.

A new policy should seek Pakistan's structural transformation, both political and economic. It should focus on reducing the power, prerogatives, and pocketbook of the army; creating and strengthening internal regulatory bodies responsible for revenue collection and enforcement; fundamentally realigning the government's budgetary priorities; improving the quality of basic public services; developing a viable, politically neutral police force and an independent judiciary; upholding the freedom of the press; and guaranteeing minority rights. A successful strategy will require the significant coordination of American policy with that of key allies such as Britain and Japan. The United States must also elicit India's assistance and cooperation. This amounts to an extensive and ambitious agenda. If even a fraction of these reforms is enacted, however, Pakistan may be able to find a cure for its perennial ills.

None of these efforts will be cost-free or easily accomplished. But unless General Musharraf is prodded and persuaded to undertake these measures, Pakistan's ability to function as a viable state will remain in jeopardy -- a prospect too dire to risk.

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  • Sumit Ganguly is a Visiting Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.
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