Pakistanis are celebrating the accomplishment of an elected government — for the first time in the country’s history — serving in office for the full five years of its constitutional term. Never mind that this is the only accomplishment of that government, or that the news is drowned out by the horror stories that continue to emanate from Pakistan. These only serve to solidify the impression of an increasingly dysfunctional, fragmented, very troubled state, on which much depends, but in which fragility and instability continue to mount.
Atrocity builds on atrocity. Minorities are targeted and murdered — with seeming impunity — by extremists who brag publicly about doing so. And the violence is not limited to minorities. Anyone who does not meet a narrow and exclusive definition of “Muslim,” as defined by religious fundamentalists, has come under increasing attack. The ubiquitous Sufi shrines, revered by perhaps half of the Sunni population, are assaulted by extremists who regard them as apostate. Humanitarians delivering social and medical services to the poor are gunned down in cold blood — witness the murder of polio vaccine and other health workers, and that of Parveen Rehman, the head of Pakistan’s celebrated urban social service NGO, the Orangi project of Karachi. And now we learn that, with an election coming, the political parties are wooing the perpetrators, rather than pledging to defeat them.
Predictions about Pakistan, a growth industry today but one that has kept scholars and pundits busy for decades, has often produced insightful and unsettling analyses. Almost all observers come to the same conclusion — Pakistan will muddle through for the foreseeable future. We view Pakistan either through “a glass half full,” meaning that there is hope that someday, in some way, the country will turn around, or through “a glass half empty,” meaning that its long-term trajectory is toward failure, but that it will hold together during our lifetime (glued by the army).
But the increasingly grim news out of Pakistan forcefully reminds me of what my dear friend, the late Sir Hilary Synnott, former British high commissioner to Pakistan, argued a few years ago. The half-full or half-empty glass was not, he said, the appropriate metaphor. Analysts should, he insisted, look at Pakistan through the image of “a glass too large,” by which he meant a country constantly overreaching.
I think Sir Hilary was on to something. Pakistan has historically tried to punch above its weight. This derives mainly from its historic regard of India as its existential threat. This elevated the army, gave it a public imprimatur above the politicians, and allowed it to take — almost as its right — most of the state’s resources to maintain an imagined parity with India. To add to its arsenal, the army recruited religious militants to fight as proxies against India and in Afghanistan. The irony is that the army has lost control of these proxies, and it is they who are now carrying out the attacks against the state and its citizens.
In addition to the army, Pakistan inherited its other political and economic institutions from the British (and to some extent the Moguls) and, as in almost all ex-colonial countries, these were taken over by indigenous elites and the state, for the benefit of those elites and the state. This suited the army just fine, as these institutions were soon dwarfed vis-à-vis the army, and remain so. Had its society remained so structured, over time those political and economic institutions might have become stronger and more independent, and Pakistan more modern. Sometimes that happens, but infrequently. The addition of these now-autonomous militant proxies to an already unpromising mix made that mix even more toxic, and modernization much less likely.
Before our eyes, the Pakistani state, which seems to have given in without a murmur to the exclusionist narrative of the fundamentalists, may have begun to unravel. Sir Hilary’s metaphor of “a glass too large” may have even wider application and meaning. How can a state continue to muddle through when it has lost the fundamental requisite of a state, its monopoly on the use and definition of legitimate violence? How much longer before Pakistanis conclude that the basic protection their state is supposed to provide its citizens — of life and property — is absent.
The feeling comes that the inflection point of the “muddle through” curve is being reached, that in effect, the too-large glass we should look through has now filled to overflowing with problems that Pakistan cannot handle — a weak state under attack from the monsters it created, with mostly dysfunctional political and economic institutions, going in a vicious circle, and showing no promise or hope of transformation. The West, as well as Pakistan’s regional neighbors, should be thinking about the political and strategic implications of an accelerated decline toward state failure in this key, nuclear-armed country.
William Milam is a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan and a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center.