Pakistan lies at the fault line between “West Asia” (the Turkish, Arab and Persian-dominated areas in the southwestern part of the continent) and “South Asia” (the Indian subcontinent, which begins roughly at the Indus Valley which forms Pakistan’s heart). It’s an unstable, unpredictable country, one which has given policymakers, diplomats and businessmen migraines for decades at least (if not its entire existence). Newsweek magazine even called Pakistan “the most dangerous country” in the world a decade ago, and the evaluation has caught on. While it’s a little hard to stay perpetually terrified of a country for that long, the sad fact is not much has changed.
So what’s the problem? Pakistan isn’t a war zone or a failed state or a criminal hotbed. What makes it so dangerous?
Pakistan was born out of a violent partition of the old colonial Indian Empire in 1947. It originally included what is now Bangladesh because both areas are mostly Muslim (almost all Muslim now). It had numerous defects right from the get-go: a big refugee population, multiple languages, a divide between the dry, dusty mountainous and desert regions to the west and the fertile river valley in the east, a lack of a real political precedent within its borders, hostile and dangerous neighbors, and the usual Third World problems (poverty, illiteracy, superstition, overcrowding, etc.). And that’s not even counting the huge split (the size of India!) with its eastern section.
Pakistan did have a substantial cohort of British-trained and educated professionals to make up a decent governing and business class, something that it still benefits from today. It had a visionary founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. But these benefits only went so far; Jinnah died within a year of independence and his prime minister was assassinated. Pakistan’s leaders proved to be feckless, squabbling, incompetent and corrupt. Its internal divisions, especially between its western and eastern wings, grew wider and wider.
About the only institution in Pakistan that was widely respected was the army (and even then, not so much in the eastern wing), which was also trained along the British model but much more tightly disciplined than the government. It chafed under civilian control, so in 1958, after a period of 4 prime ministers in 2 years, the military took power, following the lead of other chaotic, artificial postcolonial states. The Pakistani military would go on to launch coups again in 1977 and 1999, and military dictatorship has come to characterize Pakistan. Even when the military isn’t in charge, it still wields enormous power from behind the scenes. Elected officials are too scared to run afoul of it, given what happened to the Bhutto political family (father Zulfikar was hanged, daugher Benazir was assassinated).
Tight military control was justified in part by Pakistan’s hostile international environment. To its southeast looms India, a mortal enemy that Pakistan has always regarded with fear and misgivings. To its north is Afghanistan, a turbulent, poor and unpredictable country. Beyond Afghanistan was the Soviet Union, a Communist superpower. Fearing a squeeze from both sides by the infidel menace, Pakistan made 2 strategic alliances to ensure its security: America and China. America was interested in containing the Soviet Union and also distrusted India. Sino-Indian relations went sour after a 1962 war, and relations with the Soviet Union weren’t too great either. China may also be Communist and infidel, but it was more distant than the USSR and less expansionist.
Pakistan may have a big, powerful army, but it pales in comparison to the Soviet Union’s or India’s. (This was demonstrated in a series of wars with India, none of which Pakistan won, some of which it definitely lost.) To compensate, Pakistan has relied on espionage; its spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), became one of the world’s most active, weakening Pakistan’s enemies with propaganda and boosting its clients with government funds. It played a crucial role in the long war in Afghanistan by channeling monetary and military aid to the mujahidin fighting the Soviet Union there in the 1980s. In the ’90s (but also earlier), it did the same to insurgents in Kashmir, a territory split between Pakistan and India that Pakistan has always claimed and that has been a perpetual thorn in India’s armor.
Just to shake things up a little, Pakistan has not been immune to the current of Islamic radicalism coursing through Muslim countries. It had been founded as a secular country with Islam interpreted more as a cultural unifying force. But the bloody ethnic cleansing that accompanied Partition purged it of most minorities, and ordinary Pakistanis are mostly devout. Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan’s dictator during the ’80s, believed that Islam needed to be encouraged more to give the country a stronger unifying force and fighting spirit. He built Muslim schools (madrassas) across the country and encouraged the development of Muslim political parties and Quranic education. Saudi Arabia, the Muslim world’s biggest and most pious spender, became a patron, with Saudi preachers imported to spread its puritanical Wahhabi doctrine. The Afghan fighters both countries favored — first Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, then the Taliban — were Islamist (which means that they want Islam to play a role in national politics).
There are several reasons for this. Many Pakistani officers, generals, politicians and spies are personally pious and see Islam as the only true bond across cultural and ethnic lines (especially in the Afghan war’s original context as an anti-Communist jihad). Pakistan explained to its American sponsors that jihadists fight harder and with more conviction (although Hekmatyar challenged this interpretation with his deadlocked struggle to take Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, in the early ’90s). From a strategic point of view, Pakistan wants a friendly government in Kabul to keep Afghanistan’s unruly and problematic warlords in line and to stem the flow of opium out of that country. Its clients have been Pashtun, an ethnic group along the Pakistani border. They have assumed they will be more pliable and easier to work with — and more likely to rein in the Pashtuns within Pakistan, who also tend to be unruly.
As anyone who’s been paying attention to world affairs for the last few decades can tell you, this strategy has created problems. The Taliban proved to be much more zealous and puritanical than Pakistan was comfortable with, banning music, soccer, toothpaste, TVs, and Western clothing, among various other things deemed non-Islamic. It hosted terrorists in Afghanistan who operated on an international scale. When they attacked America in 2001, it brought a 2nd superpower crashing into Afghanistan, with Pakistan roped in as a base for the American invasion. Pakistanis now found themselves fighting against the very government they had installed.
The Taliban have since lost power, as has Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s dictator during the ’00s. America, after a brief surge in 2009-11, has withdrawn from Afghanistan, preferring to use drones to nail unfriendly mujahidin from the sky.
But less has changed than meets the eye. The military, as ever before, wields enormous power within Pakistan, and despite what its civilian government says, it is still sponsoring the Taliban, guided by the same strategic assumptions as before. Russia (although influential once more) is no longer the key force within Afghanistan that it once was, but India has renewed good relations with Afghanistan. This only exacerbates Pakistan’s fear of encirclement and keeps its supply lines to Islamists and terrorists flowing.
The results are plain to see. In 2008, terrorists supported by ISI attacked a major hotel in Mumbai, India’s biggest city, and went on a bloody rampage in the city. In 2011, it was revealed that Usama bin Ladin, the mastermind behind 9/11, had been living in Abbottabad, Pakistan (home of Pakistan’s military academy) for 5 years. In 2015, it was revealed that Mullah Umar, the Taliban’s deposed leader, had died — in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. In all cases, Pakistan vehemently denied that it was involved in any way, despite the substantial evidence saying otherwise.
As a result, Pakistan’s relations with America are in decline. Evidence of covert Pakistani support for the Taliban was obvious from the beginning of America’s invasion in 2001 (particularly since America’s intelligence agency, the CIA, had cooperated with ISI on covert support in the ’80s). Repeated American requests to stop have been ignored. Instead, Pakistan has grown testier and testier with the US, since Pakistani civilians occasionally die in American drone strikes. Conspiracy theories and exaggerated atrocity stories circulate freely within Pakistan, leading to an 11% approval rating for America. Americans weren’t a big fan of the bin Ladin thing, either. The result is that America is showing more interest in a cooperative relationship with India. Relations with China remain strong, and may even be improving thanks to China’s famed engineering and development capacity. On the other hand, China is worried about Islamic militancy too, since it has a Muslim population in its west and its workers in Pakistan have to worry about getting shot or captured.
While the turmoil in Afghanistan remains a distant problem for most Pakistanis, who live in the Indus Valley, it is hitting closer and closer to home. Peshawar, a major Pashtun city and a focal point for fighters slipping in and out of Afghanistan over the Khyber Pass, is pretty close to Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. A home-grown Taliban offshoot, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, along with various other terrorist groups inspired by militant religious rhetoric, attacks targets inside Pakistan — a public school in Peshawar, Christians celebrating Easter in a park in Lahore, a police academy in Quetta. Muslim sects like Shi’ites and Ahmadis are routinely attacked and persecuted. A climate of fear and intolerance is oppressing Pakistan’s urban centers, and anyone known to be spreading un-Islamic ideas or practices is in danger of assassination.
The final unpredictable element in Pakistan is its nuclear arsenal. Rattled by India’s nuclear test in 1974, Pakistan has secretly been developing and stockpiling nuclear weapons as deterrence. Although the world freaked out during the Kargil War with India in 1999, Pakistan has not used them yet (and hasn’t fought an open war with India since, even though the insurgency in Kashmir boils on). But Pakistan is guilty of passing nuclear technology on to other interested countries like Iran and North Korea. With Peshawar such a short distance from Islamabad, the prospect of Taliban fighters or their brethren getting their hands on nukes is definitely a prospect that makes diplomats break out into sweat.
This, then, is the dilemma of present-day Pakistan. It has an elected and generally respected civilian government, but the military runs the show and subverts the government’s will when it feels the national interest is at stake. It relies on passionately Muslim mujahedin to keep Afghanistan weak and divided, even if this means an increasing threat of an Islamic insurgency within itself. It condemns America’s drone-centered policy but basically relies on it to deal with insurgents it’s too scared of taking on itself. It relies on its huge military, nuclear stockpile, and network of informants, insurgents and terrorists to keep India distracted and reactive, thereby increasing its own security, even though it provokes continued mistrust and hostility from India.
Pakistan still has several strengths. It has one of the world’s biggest populations, a substantial professional class, some manufacturing, and a military disciplined and unified enough to hold the country together. It is not as extremely Islamic as Afghanistan used to be and Iran and Saudi Arabia still are. It cooperates with America on counter-terrorism (when it suits its own interests) and occasionally shows interest in peace talks with India. But its growing network of zealously Islamic political groups, ethnic divisions, and ongoing lack of economic development continue to hold it back and inspire concern. Calling Pakistan the “world’s most dangerous country” might be up for debate, but it’s certainly one that has frustrated and confused outsiders for a long time.