On The Side Talking Points

What is the most potent existential threat to Pakistan?

Updated 18 Aug, 2016 02:40pm

Since 1947, Pakistan has faced both real and perceived threats to its existence. Wars, insurgencies, natural disasters and even fears of an economic meltdown dogged the country in the first 25 years of its history, culminating in its break-up in 1971. The Pakistan we are left with has faced continual ethnic and sectarian turmoil — where depleting water resources and an ever-worsening energy crisis keep threatening whatever little economic gains the country has made. Yet, for most Pakistanis, foreign aggression and interference by outside powers seem to top the list of potentially mortal risks facing them. The Herald reaches out to a number of experts in various fields for their take on the threats that most bedevil Pakistan’s search for a sustained survival.

Trouble in the neighbourhood

A long-range missile at a parade in Islamabad | Reuters
A long-range missile at a parade in Islamabad | Reuters

By going overtly nuclear in 1998, Pakistan demonstrated to its long-term adversary, India, that New Delhi will not be able to commit aggression against Islamabad as it had successfully done in the 1971 war, which resulted in the dismemberment of a united Pakistan.

Nuclear weapons have three general effects on inter-state relations. First, they provide the nuclear state with an “infrangible guarantee of its independence and physical integrity.” Second, mutual deterrence among antagonistic nuclear states like India and Pakistan places limits on violence which, in turn, acts as a break on total war. Third, by altering the ‘offence-defence’ balance in favour of defence, nuclear weapons have made it possible for weaker states like Pakistan to defend themselves effectively against larger, powerful countries like India.

Because of these perceived security and deterrence benefits, countries like Pakistan not only pursue nuclear weapons but are reluctant to unambiguously commit themselves to a policy of “no first use”. While Pakistan’s nuclear weapons capability has thwarted the threat of foreign invasion, it has made the country more vulnerable to proxy wars, externally sponsored subversion and acts of armed violence by non-state actors like the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and al-Qaeda. A repeat of the Mumbai terrorist attack emanating from Pakistani soil can unleash a crisis in which India will have the strategic sympathy of the international community, while Pakistan would run the risk of diplomatic isolation. Pakistan has to sharpen its diplomatic tools to deal with these mortal dangers.

By Syed Rifaat Hussain, an analyst, author and professor at the National University of Sciences and Technology, Islamabad

The elephant in the room

Supporters of  Sunni Tehreek shout slogans demanding a military operation against the Taliban| Reuters
Supporters of Sunni Tehreek shout slogans demanding a military operation against the Taliban| Reuters

After dithering for decades and suffering the loss of over 60,000 people with twice as many injured and maimed, Pakistan’s ruling elite has finally declared that terrorist organisations are an existential threat to the country. The moaning and groaning nation, after many years, stands behind its security force to fight the hydra-headed monster of violence. But fighting terrorism is attacking symptoms only and not the diseases which have ailed Pakistan since its inception.

The edifice of terrorist organisations in Pakistan is built on the foundation of religious extremism. Terrorism needs an ideology to motivate people to commit an act without fear of consequences and, in Pakistan, there is an unending supply of suicide bombers and fidayeen nourished on this religious extremism. The exclusionist interpretation of Islam propagated by al-Qaeda, ISIS and their various franchisees attracts people to join terrorist outfits and lay down their lives for it.

These extremists know that their brand of Sharia cannot be imposed in Muslim-majority countries through a democratic system. Being an irrational minority which wants to roll back history, the only way their version of khilafat can be imposed is through the barrel of a gun. Hence, terrorism is their chosen tactic.

The imperative is that religious extremism should be routed out by promoting an alternate narrative for a moderate and secular Pakistan. At present, unlimited space is available to extremists, since religion is also used by the rulers to further their vested interests.

By Babar Ayaz, a journalist and author of What’s Wrong with Pakistan?

Water woes and other stories

'Zero point', where the distribution of water in Karachi begins | Moosa Kaleem
'Zero point', where the distribution of water in Karachi begins | Moosa Kaleem

There is no one potent existential threat that Pakistan faces. We face multiple crises and challenges – all serious in nature – but none that can unravel the state in the near to medium future. That is true for Pakistan’s economic challenges as well. There is no threat of imminent economic collapse. This is not to say that Pakistan does not face an economic crisis — in fact, it faces multiple crises.

Many analysts like to paint a dismal picture in which we face an imminent breakdown of all economic activity. Our economy is held together by its agricultural base, which, so far, has been strong enough to feed the nation every year. Our biggest earner of foreign exchange, the textile sector, is closely linked with this agricultural base. Unless it is seriously threatened with calamities like prolonged drought or major crop damage over several years, a collapse seems unlikely.

Within the same context, Pakistan really needs to worry about the availability of water. In the past 70 years, it has become a water-depressed country from a water-abundant one. In the next 10 years or so, this can become a serious threat to both the country’s politics and its economy.

Another periodic crisis that we have faced over the years is in the balance of payments front. Thanks to Pakistan’s place in the region and in international politics, it has been able to extract rents (in terms of foreign aid) or loans contracted at low interest rates to ward off this crisis each time. Ruling elites, therefore, continue to milk this situation to the best of their ability. Of course, this does not make for a good long-term economic strategy. What such a strategy should look like, however, ought to be deliberated and discussed at length.

By Fahd Ali, an economist and assistant professor at Habib University, Karachi

Our unguided urban boom


One of the most potent existential threats to Pakistan is the proliferation of dysfunctional cities. Among the fastest urbanising countries in the region, Pakistan’s very substantial rural population increasingly seeks opportunities in its largest cities. Of the 10 most populated metropolitan areas in Pakistan, eight have a population in excess of four million. Every one of these cities is likely to have a population of over 10 million within the next two decades, or maybe sooner. Karachi alone is pushing 20 million, but Lahore, Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Multan and Peshawar all represent massive challenges. If history is any guide, we will begin to engage with the challenges of a city only when bodies in gunny bags become a cultural mainstay.

One of the principal entry points to a public discourse around cities could be decentralisation. However, the specific political economy of sub-provincial governance in the country has populated that trajectory with all kinds of pitfalls. Improved delivery of basic services, like education, also offers an interesting starting point to examine the state of our cities — but Pakistanis are not waiting around for their governments to wake up.

Ultimately, without robust, moral leadership, Pakistan cannot hope for a way out of the paralysis of its cities. They are all still managed as if it was 1899. Where a visionary leader who acts to chart out a vision for the Pakistani city of the 21st century will come from, however, is a mystery. In the meantime, our cities will continue plunging their inhabitants deeper into all the complexities and challenges of urban nightmares constructed by a complete and utter lack of leadership and imagination.

By Mosharraf Zaidi, a leading columnist, government adviser and campaign director of the Alif Ailaan campaign for education

What do you think the most potent existential threat to Pakistan is? Sound off in the comments section.

This was originally published in Herald's April 2015 issue. To read more, subscribe to Herald in print.