Monday :: May 4, 2009

Pakistan: The Roots of Failure - An Introduction

by eriposte

In previous posts I discussed Pakistan's deteriorating security environment [1] and how the rise of rural poverty in Pakistan is a fundamental reason for Pakistan's instability today [2]. The importance of rural poverty has since been acknowledged and discussed [3] in the context of how the Pakistani Taliban successfully exploited the conditions of Pakistan's rural poor in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) to takeover the beautiful Pakistani province of Swat. That said, rural poverty is only one of the reasons for Pakistan's current state. As I mentioned earlier [2] Pakistan's internal turmoil today can also be traced, directly or indirectly, to another spectacular failure that was a structural feature of Pakistani governance for a long period since its creation from India in 1947 - namely, the suppression of ethnic and linguistic differences and the terrible policies that were put in place to further this agenda. Over the years, some of the most egregious political and policy errors in this sphere were partly or wholly reversed in the wake of the terrible messes they created. However, Pakistan is unfortunately paying a steep price for the legacy of those errors. In my view, it is not possible to truly understand and address the security problems plaguing Pakistan without examining Pakistan's ethnic/linguistic diversity and how that has played an unfortunate role in the country's evolution.

Most discussions of Pakistan in Western media and think-tanks tend to focus more on the current security situation and the threat from Islamic fundamentalist militants. Even articles on the negative impact of the militarization of Pakistan tend to mostly highlight how the army was used by authoritarian leaders to preserve their power, disable democracy and manage their misadventures outside Pakistan [4]. In general, there is limited appreciation for how the Islamization, and to some extent militarization, of Pakistan was motivated to a significant degree by the desire of successive, usually authoritarian, Pakistani rulers to maintain the status quo power structure by suppressing certain ethnic/linguistic groups and creating a strong (ethnically skewed) military force that could be utilized to not just wage war externally but also crush internal conflicts. There have been discussions of the unrest in certain parts of Pakistan over U.S. military attacks inside Pakistani territory, but it is also important to remember that the support extended by past U.S. governments to authoritarian Pakistani rulers has been a significant factor in the internal destabilization of Pakistan and the rise of anti-American sentiments within Pakistan.

In a New York Times piece [5] that appeared over the weekend, Sabrina Tavernise briefly discussed Pakistan's complexities and wrote (emphasis mine, throughout this post):

Pakistan is not a collapsed state. Its urban infrastructure works far better than most of the Soviet Union’s during that empire’s peak. Pakistan has a national airline that sells tickets online, and highway rest stops with air-conditioning and packaged cookies. But the poorest Pakistanis know nothing of these things, and the bigger the gap between rich and poor, the more likely are major social unrest and war. “This is really a war for the soul of Pakistan,” Mr. Sethi said. Pakistanis may have restored civilian rule in the last year, but few of them pin much hope on Pakistan’s political class, most of which comes from the landed elite and has ruled corruptly in the past.
Insurgencies can only be stamped out if societies turn against them, and Mr. Sethi said he believed that Pakistan’s brightest hope for salvation may be the clumsiness of the Taliban themselves. In recent weeks, they have offended many Pakistanis by defending the public flogging of a girl and declaring Pakistan’s Constitution, Supreme Court and National Assembly un-Islamic.

Tavernise is right in that there is a yawning gap between rich and poor in Pakistan. However, the rest of the picture of Pakistan - one that might be reasonable to someone new to the country like Tavernise - is also fairly superficial. For instance, the mention of corruption amongst the political elite - not exactly uncommon in any country - drastically oversimplifies a more fundamental problem that Pakistan has faced through its history, i.e., not merely political corruption but also the pursuit of policies that explicitly focused on linguistic/ethnic suppression (not unlike what happened in Sri Lanka and precipitated the ongoing civil war in that country [6]). A possible analogy would be to describe the tumult during the Civil Rights era in the United States as a response to political corruption - which sort of leaves out the most important underlying detail as well as the distinctions between people and leaders of different races, political or ideological orientations. Likewise, the notion that "insurgencies can only be stamped out if societies turn against them" is naive because it doesn't take into account the fact that average people often tacitly or actively support insurgencies when they feel the government is making their lives miserable. Through much of Pakistan's existence, the government's mishandling of ethnic diversity has been a major factor in multiple violent or non-violent conflicts - such as the civil war that led to the separation of East Pakistan into the independent nation of Bangladesh, multiple insurgencies in Balochistan, the clashes (particularly in Sindh) that followed the start of the Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD), and the violence and terrorism traced to the Mohajir Qaumi Movement in Sindh. Hence, we cannot view violent struggles in Pakistan merely through the lenses of poverty or corruption - we need to look deeper and looking deeper means understanding Pakistan's linguistic and ethnic diversity and how that diversity was mismanaged under successive Pakistani rulers, in part leading to the Islamization and militarization of Pakistan.

As an introduction to this topic, it is helpful to start with a simple chart based on data from the Pakistani government's census department [7]. I'll explain why this chart indirectly goes to the heart of Pakistan's troubled history.


Along the horizontal axis of the chart is the mother tongue (language) of major linguistic groups in Pakistan and the vertical axis specifies the % of the total population that each linguistic group constitutes. As an example, Urdu speakers constituted roughly 7.6% of Pakistan at the time this data was collected [7] but were ~14.2% of the population of urban Islamabad. [NOTE: Urban Islamabad was chosen because that is the capital of Pakistan's government and ruling elite.]

I picked this data because it provides a window into Pakistan's ethnic & linguistic diversity and also serves as a crude proxy for the results of decades of ethno-linguistic suppression by the Pakistani ruling elite.

  • For the longest time, bureaucrats and military officers have been the de facto ruling elite in Pakistan and through most of Pakistan's history the bureaucratic elite have been dominated by Punjabis (mostly from the Pakistani province of Punjab) and Mohajirs (Urdu speakers who mostly settled in the province of Sindh). The chart shows that Punjabis and Urdu-speaking Mohajirs in urban Islamabad are disproportionately higher in that region compared to their overall presence in Pakistan. In a way this population distribution is a proxy - albeit an imperfect one - for their over-representation in the Pakistani governing elite.
  • Although this was not the case initially, Pashtuns (mostly from the North-West Frontier Province - NWFP) eventually became over-represented [8] in the ruling power structure via their strong presence, along with Punjabis, in the Pakistani military. This trend was intensified by the militarization of Pakistan and given the strategic significance of the NWFP, it was somewhat inevitable that the Punjabi-Mohajir elite would have to share power with the Pashtun elite. Since we are using proxies here, note that Pushto-speakers are only moderately under-represented in urban Islamabad compared to their share of Pakistan's population. (Technically, the headquarters of Pakistan's army and air force are located in the city of Rawalpindi, located slightly to the south of Islamabad; Islamabad international airport is in Rawalpindi.)
  • Sindhis (mostly from the province of Sindh), Balochs (mostly from the province of Balochistan) and Siraikis (mostly from the Pakistani province of Punjab, near its border with Sindh, Balochistan and the NWFP [8]) are disproportionately under-represented in urban Islamabad compared to their presence in Pakistan overall. This is a good proxy for the historical under-representation of Sindhis, Balochs and Siraikis in the Pakistani ruling elite.

The suppression of linguistic groups like the Bengalis, Sindhis, Balochs and Siraikis took many forms - some direct and some indirect [8-10]. Although the direct forms of suppression were proximal causes for both non-violent and violent protests as well as civil wars and insurgencies, some of the indirect forms of suppression also resulted in long-lasting damage to Pakistan's security and stability. Specifically, the overt embrace of Islamization as a means to cloak ethnic and linguistic differences, and the concomitant militarization of the state - in part to wage war with India [11], a convenient perpetual enemy that would ostensibly "unite" all Pakistani Muslims regardless of ethnic or linguistic origin, and in part as a response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan - have had devastating consequences for the internal stability of Pakistan and its relationships with India and Afghanistan. Not only did ethnic relations within Pakistan deteriorate, thereby leading to never-ending power struggles and conflicts, but Pakistan's broad-based economic growth became stunted, as military spending dramatically dried up funding for broader socio-economic and human development programs that particularly impacted some of the same ethnic/linguistic minorities that were already suppressed. Further, the internal security situation became progressively more volatile as the support for militant Islamist groups eventually led to blowback when those militants were strongly discouraged from continuing their proxy wars on the Western (Afghanistan) and Eastern (India/Jammu & Kashmir) borders.

To truly understand the source of Pakistan's current problems, we need to go beyond the tip of the iceberg. For example, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) published a "backgrounder" on Pakistan [12] with some discussion on the topic of ethnic conflicts. Unfortunately, the backgrounder provided a fairly muddled picture of cause and effect. For example, in one section, there is a brief mention of "the dominant role played by Punjab [province]" and the impact of that on the other provinces. Yet, in another section, the backgrounder said the following:

Since its birth in August 1947, Pakistan has grappled with an acute sense of insecurity in the midst of a continuing identity crisis, writes Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistan analyst, in the 2008 book Descent into Chaos"Pakistan's inability to forge a national identity has led to an intensification of ethnic, linguistic, and regional nationalism, which has splintered and fragmented the country," he argues. The most dramatic example of this splintering occurred in 1971 when the government's failure to address the needs of the ethnic Bengali community led to East Pakistan becoming the independent nation of Bangladesh.


Pakistan's current ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, wrote in The Washington Quarterly in 2005 (while a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) that Pakistan's political factions have often found it difficult to cooperate with one another or to submit to the rule of law. As a result, he argued, "Pakistan is far from developing a consistent [form] of government, with persisting political polarization (PDF) along three major, intersecting fault lines: between civilians and the military, among different ethnic and provincial groups, and between Islamists and secularists."

I haven't read Rashid's book although I did glance through Haqqani's article [13], which is informative. Unfortunately, these quotes in the CFR backgrounder are confusing and misleading. For instance, the quote from Rashid makes it appear as if the problem of ethnic conflicts is due to Pakistan's "inability to forge a national identity". Perhaps Rashid's position is more nuanced in his book, but as I will highlight in this series, the actual situation is sort of the reverse: Pakistan's inability to forge a national identity is to a large extent because of the inability, and often unwillingness, of its ruling elite to do what it takes to successfully integrate and develop certain ethnic/linguistic groups. Likewise, the quote from Haqqani is also incorrect in a way. He writes: "Partly due to the role of the military and partly because of their own weakness, Pakistan’s political factions have often found it difficult to cooperate with one another or to submit to the rule of law". Haqqani is correct about the pernicious role of the military power structure in Pakistan, but attributing part of the problem to weakness amongst political factions or their unwillingness to submit to the law is strange to say the least, given that Pakistan's political elite have generally had little de facto power in Pakistan's ruling apparatus and political factionalism could potentially be a positive in ethnically diverse societies like Pakistan by circumscribing the limits of power and authoritarianism. It is common even amongst top American experts on Pakistan to sort of gloss over the internal struggles of Pakistan's ethnic groups - see for example the recent Atlantic Council report [14] that barely scratches the surface of Pakistan's ethnic conflicts (page 9). The report is informative but fails to ask some obvious questions that are at the root of the mess that Pakistan is in today.

Pakistan's history is rich and vast and a few blog posts cannot possibly do it justice. However, there are key aspects of that history that I believe observers and experts should be reasonably informed about. It is my intention to explore those aspects as part of this series. Here are some of the questions that I will try to address in upcoming blog posts:

  • How did an insignificant ethnic minority, the Mohajirs, that had virtually no grassroots base inside Pakistan at the time of its creation, become so powerful in the Pakistani ruling elite? Why, despite their over-representation in the Pakistani bureaucracy, did some leaders of the Mohajirs resort to urban terrorism in the second half of the 1980s and early 1990s?
  • Why did Punjabis get disproportionately high representation in Pakistan's power structure? What were the consequences of this for Pakistan's violent history with India and Kashmir?
  • Why was the Pakistani ruling elite able to suppress not just ethnic minorities but also the original ethnic majority - the Bengalis - something that ultimately resulted in a civil war and the independent nation of Bangladesh?
  • Why did Pakistan become an authoritarian, military-bureaucratic state for most of its existence, contrary to the professed goals of its founders and unlike its neighbor India, which faced far more ethno-linguistic, religious and class-based conflicts and yet remained a democracy for most of its existence?
  • Why did Pakistan become Islamized - i.e., a country where religion became deeply intertwined with government - despite the claims of Pakistan-friendly observers that, somehow, Pakistan's founders sought to build a "secular" nation?
  • Did U.S. policy towards Pakistan inadvertently allow Pakistani elites to continue ethnic suppression and thereby destabilize Pakistan?
  • Is there a relationship between the landlessness and rural poverty in Pakistan and ethnic suppression?
  • Is the constant political deal-making in Pakistan and the corruption amongst the political elite a root cause of Pakistan's problems or is it also a symptom of fundamental structural issues?
  • Is the proliferation of political parties and factionalism in Pakistan and the lack of large parliamentary majorities in Pakistani national elections destabilizing Pakistan?

I don't expect my series to be thorough or complete (indeed, there are dozens and dozens of books on this subject) but it will be an attempt to delve a bit deeper into Pakistan's history to identify what we need to learn from it.


1. Eriposte, "The State of Pakistan", The Left Coaster, Feb 2009.

2. Eriposte, "How Rural Poverty Fuels Instability in Pakistan", UN Dispatch and The Left Coaster, Feb 2009.

3. Eriposte, "Taliban Exploiting Pakistan's Rural Poverty", The Left Coaster, Feb 2009.

4. R. M. Basrur and S. Ganguly, "Pakistan’s Self-Defeating Army", Newsweek, May 2009.

5. S. Tavernise, "Pakistan: Struggling to See a Country of Shards", New York Times, May 2009.

6. Eriposte, "Language and Ethnic Conflict in South Asia", The Left Coaster, Feb 2009.

7. Statistics Division, Government of Pakistan, Population by Mother Tongue. [NOTE: There is no date specified in the Pakistani government website, so I have to assume that this data is based on their last census, probably 1998. The absolute numbers are therefore subject to some change but as best as I can tell the % distributions have probably not changed appreciably in the last decade].

8. M. A. Shah, "The Foreign Policy of Pakistan: Ethnic Impacts on Diplomacy", I. B. Taurus, New York, 1997.

9. A. Khan, "Politics of Identity: Ethnic Nationalism and the State of Pakistan", Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2005.

10. K. Adeney, "Federalism and Ethnic Conflict Regulation in India and Pakistan", Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2007.

11. Eriposte, "India-Pakistan Disinformation", The Left Coaster, Feb 2009.

12. J. Bajoria, "Pakistan's Fragile Foundations", Council on Foreign Relations, Backgrounder on Pakistan, March 2009

13. H. Haqqani, "The Role of Islam in Pakistan's Future", The Washington Quarterly, Winter 2004-5.

14. Needed: A Comprehensive U.S. Policy Towards Pakistan", The Atlantic Council, Feb 2009.

eriposte :: 7:12 AM :: Comments (8) :: Digg It!