Pakistan Today: Challenges and Prospects

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Air Commodore (Retd) Khalid Iqbal*


Studying the challenging environment faced by Pakistan is an interesting pursuit. Generally, security, governance and economy are the approaches taken to gauge the problems faced by Pakistan. Factors such as spontaneous external pressures, fragile domestic political processes and cultural inhibitions are usually overlooked. Hence the conclusions remain inadequate and faulty. Most  problems emanate not from a lack of resources, but more so due to mismanagement; not because of a lack of options but from the desire to maintain the status quo. Not as many difficulties arise due to constitutional dysfunctionality, as do from keeping vital clauses that provide an inbuilt corrective mechanism dormant.

Policy making is hostage to emotionalism and a perception that Pakistan cannot sustain itself without external assistance; and that there is no viable alternative to Pakistan’s comprehensive alliances (read dependence). The top priority of the sitting rulers and of all those who aspire to replace them in the foreseeable future is to accrue foreign acceptability. Public welfare is of trivial importance to them. Rulers as well as rulers in waiting have a psyche to benefit from prevalent dysfunctions rather than correcting them.

Pakistan faces tremendous foreign pressures, instead of offsetting them through policy shifts, successive governments have preferred their continuity to justify their own indispensability in terms of regime

Economic growth is hindered by monopolies and lack of an environment for a competitive even playing ground. The potential in the energy sector is hostage to various powerful interest groups, which often cross the legitimate limits of pressure groups and act like mafias. Economic growth is also marred by the negative impact of the strings attached to the loans and grants by donor agencies. Meaningful long term planning does not exist; adhoc-ism and patchwork bring about quick fixes at the cost of long-term consistent pursuits. The culture to employ effective regulators to achieve the optimum level in public corporate, and to a large extent, private corporate sectors is lacking. The root cause of most of the problems could be traced back to a lack of political will and poor governance; fortunately, both are repairable.

Constitution and the Political Process

Constitutional and political inadequacies endemic in our polity pose serious challenges. The Constitution of 1973 has served the rulers well, be they civilians or of military origin. For the people, it has always remained a sacred document of national consensus. Our constitution has shown due flexibility to ward of major crises much before reaching a point of no return. Some observations are as follows:-

Military interventionists were always able to circumvent the Constitution, when required, for long spells.  It has been fully functional for as much time as it has remained suspended or operative in a mutilated form. The Judiciary has always lent its support in facilitating military interventionists; after the end of each military rule, the judiciary has always been prompt to retract its support and condemn the usurper. In addition to military interventionists, the judiciary has also provided space for civilian misadventures.  The judiciary did stand up against the extra-judicial action of President Pervez Musharaf towards the end of his tenure however, by then the General had lost domestic acceptance as well as foreign support. The actual test of the superior judiciary would come if there is another military intervention in future.

Powers  that  be  have  seldom  respected  the  constitutional process. Rather it has often been bent by the whims of the powerful. Amendments and counter amendments have been easy to engineer through coercive tools or bribes; more for expediency than for public good. The recent passage of the 20th amendment was a glaring example of opportunism. Senators refused to vote until they were given Rs 460 million on account of development funds and their lifelong VIP status was notified. This amendment had a limited utility of addressing a technical lacuna to regularize the membership of fellow parliamentarians. Most constitutional amendments are influenced by the power play of the times rather than by a desire to develop a long term framework to strengthen the polity and state.

Establishment and functioning of the present democratic setup is a positive development. However, by and large, it has not been able to make a worthwhile contribution towards improving the living standard of the general public; especially in rural Pakistan.  The current political dispensation has been unable to come up to the expectations of the people and is unable to manage the multi-faceted crises impinging upon the well being of the people as well as upon national security. To be fair, one must admit that these were no easy tasks. Regional dynamics have been the major focus of the government. The government has made concerted efforts to distance itself from America, and this has resulted in multiple levels of crisis and embarrassment. In this context, 2011 was a bad year.

Since  the  inception  of  the  1973  constitution,  the  political process has produced weak governments. Smaller parties have benefited rather disproportionately from the weaknesses of the political system and the loop hole of the ‘Political Parties Act’. Major political parties more often than not have to settle for unstable coalitions. In the process, smaller parties have acquired frequently been marred by pledges, counter pledges and the rampant use of money which has eroded the credibility of the Upper House.

Emergence  of  regional  political  forces  have  marginalized national discourse as regional and parochial narratives have become more prominent and dominant. The implementation portion of manifestoes of major parties remain hostage to the compromises made with diverse political groups. This trend in the national polity inhibits formulation and implementation of policies reflecting larger interests of the nation as a whole. That is why, irrespective of a major party leading a coalition, the state of policy making and governance inadequacies remain.

Power play and sheer blackmail is amply visible in the groupings and regroupings of political forces. Due to the present electoral process, the power to form the government rests in rural Pakistan, whereas the power to topple the government resides in urban Pakistan. Whenever a government has been forced out as a result of a vibrant and more informed urban class, their replacements brought in by the rural electorate have been no better.

Major  political  parties  are  dynastic  fiefdoms  of  powerful political families. Though externally leaders of political parties portray a democratic face, within the party they are not prone to listen to dissent or to develop a succession plan outside their kith and kin.

Military regimes have  not  performed any  better.    Military rulers face the daunting challenge of domestic and international legitimacy. For domestic acceptance, military rulers eventually have to cooperate with the same political forces they had earlier claimed to reform. At the international level these rulers take on a proxy role for extra-regional powers.

Moreover, a number of civil dispensations fell apart before their legitimate term was over. Not all these political happenings can just be termed as a twist of fate.


Governance is another area that needs immediate attention. Institutions responsible for good governance are not performing satisfactorily.   The essence of governance is the perception at large that one could not commit a crime and get away with it. Unfortunately such perception does not hold ground in our society due to polarization in law enforcing agencies. Political appointees look towards their appointing authority because they serve until its pleasure. This coupled with incompetence and corruption has made most of the law enforcing entities incapable of acting in line with the principles of justice and fair play. Higher judiciary is praised only when its decisions are favourable and is demonized when the decisions are otherwise; the objective is to retain the ability to violate the law with impunity.

The major indicators of good governance include accountability, transparency in all the decisions and decision-making processes, efficient political dispensation, responsiveness to social and political change, genuine participation in national polity, rule of law and forward vision;  unfortunately performance on all these indicators is below average.

The  constituent elements of  good  governance can  only  be materialized if there is a strong institutional framework in the country including well-represented and genuine democratic institutions, an independent judiciary, a vibrant civil society and free media. However, these fundamental elements of governance are not functioning effectively as a system. Monitoring, investigating and adjucating components of good governance are stampeded by powerful influences and corruption.

A wide spread feeling that one could commit a crime and get away with it through influence or through sheer purchase has created a sense of insecurity amongst the underprivileged.

Our structures, including the state, bureaucracy and military etc., have not been adequately reconfigured to suit our peculiar requirements since we inherited them from the Raj in 1947.  A plausible reason for this flaw is that the colonial system suits the exploitative ruling class.

A  vibrant  civil  society  ensures  accountability  and  creates awareness among the populace and plays a vital role in bringing about good governance. Civil society has been playing its role boldly during crises. Some of its achievements have been monumental. However, after each success the relevant state and non-state institutions failed to pick up the threads, consolidate the gains and translate these into good governance.

In Pakistan the media has done a great job by creating awareness among the masses, but its reach is still limited both domestically and internationally. The mushrooming growth of national media in the country has not emerged in any systematic way; rather its growth is, by and large, unplanned and unregulated.

The media has not been able to generate informed discourse on good governance.  It lacks the maturity to act in harmony with other organs of state.

The media has not been able to play any effective role in prioritizing the common minimum agenda for bringing a consensus on major issues of the country. Parochial influences, both domestic and foreign, have been able to make significant inroads into our state and private media.

There is a need for a strong regulator to bring our media back from the present status of sensationalists to contributors in the national policy making process, and in creating an environment of respect for good governance policies.

To play its part to ensure accountability and good governance, the non-implementation of the apex court’s verdicts is, however, virtually crippling this institution. The governing party is treating the judiciary like a political party in opposition.

Newly found judicial activism is confined to high profile cases having a political shade. The lower courts continue to be corrupt and inefficient. Hence, a commoner has no respite.

Rampant  corruption  is  one  of  the  critical  factors  feeding and sustaining poor governance. Institutions responsible for checking corruption are themselves thoroughly corrupt.

Security and Foreign Policy

Pakistan faces monumental national security and foreign policy related challenges. Public opinion on these issues is ill informed and the ensuing debate is emotional and hollow. The trend is to make oversimplified assumptions towards achieving peace with our neighbours, and blame national security institutions for all the ills of our state, nation and society. There is cultural inertia inhibiting a serious review and adjustment of our ongoing policies.. National security, despite the hype, seems to be the least understood.

Conventionally, Pakistan has been viewing its national security in a narrow perspective, confining it to “the integrity of the national territory and its institutions.” This notion represents only the ‘defence’ component of national security. There is a need to focus on the complete rendition of national security which is: “Absence of threat to acquired values.” Paradoxically, a significant portion of the threat to Pakistan emanates from within its borders. This does not mean that there is no significant military threat. National security issues that are beyond the defence domain are, however, accentuating the military component of the threat.

Drone and suicide bombers are the new facets of contemporary warfare. Moreover, all nuclear states have a tendency to indulge in proxy wars through non-state actors and third party state-actors. There are huge gaps in our counter ballistic missile regimes. These military related issues inspire a relook at the traditional concept of national security. Ensuing vulnerabilities suggest that ‘indirect strategy’ must take precedence over ‘direct strategy’.

Some major issues negatively affecting our national security are: international isolation, poor governance, shaky economy, lack of control over non-state actors, an aura of insecurity amongst the general public, no-go areas in the context of imposition of the state’s writ, penetration of foreign influence in our domestic media, lack of our outreach to international media, ability of foreign intelligence agencies to penetrate into our socio-political fabric, etc.

Ambiguities as to whose war are we fighting in the context of Afghanistan have resulted in a huge perceptional gap between the national policy (both political and military) and public opinion. This dichotomy has the potential of tearing apart the fabric of the state. From a military perspective, the biggest challenge is to restore public confidence in the ability of the armed forces to provide security to the people in the wake of external threats.  The nuclear issue may return to centre stage once Afghanistan stabilizes and or when the US reduces its dependence on Pakistan.  Recent events have eroded public confidence in the context of the ability of the armed forces to defend our strategic assets. Civil- Military relations are a precarious facet of our polity. Events such as memo-gate have tarnished our national image.


The economy is another worrisome area. A shaky economy has made us dependent on external states and institutions. Though foreign debt and its implications remain under focus, excessive domestic borrowing escapes due attention. Over the last couple of years, inflation has hovered around 14%. The unemployment rate is high and the population growth rate is incompatible with the GDP growth rate. Our tax to GDP ratio is one of the lowest in the world. Financial mismanagement and corruption

The main challenges include perennial high fiscal / budget deficits, a recurring high trade deficit, lack of adequate capital formation, unsustainable debt, lack of human resource development and the energy crises. The economic challenges are indeed huge and acute; these are not simple and linear but are deeply interlinked with other challenges in a chronic way. For instance, education, health, infrastructure development are interrelated to a strong economy and require integrated corrective strategies to bring about any substantive change in the economy.

The energy crisis is very serious. Despite the availability of the requisite generation capability, power is not available due to circular debt issues. The energy sector lacks a well-grounded policy as well as a coordinated development strategy. The utilization of old technologies and expensive fuels to generate electricity leads to higher generation costs. The energy crisis is directly feeding inflation. The precarious law and order situation and poor governance are also hurting the national economy. Foreign as well as domestic investors are reluctant to invest in the country. The lack of development of human capital is another critical challenge for a contemporary knowledge based economy.

Response Options

Constitutional and Governance issues

While the challenges are many, their resolution is not beyond our national capabilities and capacities. We need an integrated approach and resolute political will to address the issues. Political leadership and institutions need to put their act together to formulate a unified response.

The constitution needs to be revisited to address the issue of inherently weak governments. The electoral process and the Political Parties Act need to be reviewed to ensure a stable government. Articles of our constitution need to be implemented in letter and spirit which can become the guiding principles for sustainable change. For example, Part 2 of the second chapter of the constitution (articles 29 to 40) lays down the principles of policy which should be the basis of the policy formulation process in the country. There is a dire need to have an absolute and firm resolve to combat corruption, greed and politics based on vested interests. And for this purpose improved, creative, and proactive governance is essential.

The formulation of a vibrant ‘local-governments’ policy to promote grass roots and community based democratic institutions also needs attention. It is unfortunate that traditionally democratic dispensations have shunned the responsibility of holding regular elections at the local bodies’ level. Ironically, as an institution, local bodies have thrived under military rulers. The issue of governance should also be looked through the prism of the constitution. In order to bring good governance through the principles of the constitution, the intelligentsia should be more vocal through the media and educate the people and launch a movement to establish the supremacy of the constitution in letter and spirit.

The degeneration of the country into a security state and abdication of the government’s responsibility towards education, health care and other essential social services in the name of privatization and outsourcing is creating conditions detrimental to good order and discipline. National fault lines need to be downplayed with an emphasis that Pakistan is a pluralistic country reflecting various cultural traditions. Such societies thrive on tolerance, social inclusiveness and mutual adjustment. There is a need to set the minimum common agenda for substantive change by  addressing  the  issues  at  hand;  starting  with  non-controversial issues. Institutions related to law and order need revamping. Structural, organizational and cultural reforms should be undertaken to reorient these institutions from promoters of corruption to depositories of public trust in the realms of fair play and justice. The lower judiciary, police, investigation and forensic departments need a single integrated review to counter their interlinked flaws.  The perception of corruption in the lower courts is a major contributor towards lack of good governance. There is also a need to address the unethical practices of some lawyers which are contributing towards the sustenance of a corrupt culture in and around these courts.

National Security and Foreign Policy

The Turkish doctrine put forward by its foreign minister Ahmet Devatoglu, in his book “Strategic Depth: Turkey’s International Position” offers a viable strategy model for Pakistan as well. It suggests: settle all internal issues, resolve all bilateral  disputes  to achieve “zero problems” with neighbours, “de-securitization” of foreign policy and transformation to an economy oriented state, and to improve international outreach by playing the role of a mediator in international conflicts. This framework needs to be reconfigured to suit our conditions.

The domestic situation and foreign policy are intertwined.  No substantive change in foreign policy is possible unless our house is in order.  In order to bring real change in foreign policy there is a need to have substantive changes inside the country and, in turn, some of those changes may not be possible without adjustments in foreign policy. Hence there is a need for an integrated corrective approach incorporating domestic and foreign policy reforms.

Pakistan should base its external policy on peace and harmony as enunciated by the founding father of the nation, who said that our external policy would be based on ‘peace at home and peace abroad.’ However, at the same times we should not be carried away by over simplifications. The military threat from India is real and cannot be just wished away through sloganeering. A cautious step by step strategy may help in resolving this in the long term. Likewise threat to national security emanating from extra regional sources requires appropriate readiness for timely and proportionate response. While maintaining an appropriate readiness posture, all external maneuvers should be employed to progressively dilute and finally eliminate this threat. Here also, there is no cut and dry quick fix. The concept of peace and harmony with all nations across the world, including our neighbors, may be realized gradually with due regard to our core national interests.

Pakistan  needs  to  extricate  itself  from  this  morass  and  assert itself as a proud, dynamic, and resilient polity, capable of making a qualitative shift in foreign policy to emerge as a role player in regional and international politics. It needs to move forward in creating a future for its people that is based on progress, development, strengthening of institutions, peace and stability, instead of incompetence, hubris, and violence. We must put in place effective contingencies to safeguard our strategic assets against diplomatic and military threats. There is a need to further build on the existing national consensus regarding the vitality of our concept of nuclear deterrence. It is also important to develop sound civil-military relations to move forward on security and foreign policy domains.

Our Higher Defence Organization needs revamping to come in line with contemporary strategic environment. There is a wide spread perception that foreign policy is formulated by military leadership and the foreign office is held accountable for its successful implementation. Necessary corrective steps must be taken to dispel this dichotomy. There is a silver lining as well. In its attempt to upgrade national security, Pakistan is in the process of extending its outreach to all regional countries, like Russia, Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey, the Central Asian Republics, China and even India. Projects like IPI, TAPI, CASA 1000, etc., indicate that Pakistan is genuinely looking for strategic depth but not in the conventional military sense. In contrast to setting up military bases on foreign soil, Pakistan should view SCO, ECO, SAARC, OIC, etc., as vital instruments for achieving its goals.


Economic  and  energy  sectors  need  wholesome  integrated structural reforms.

There is a need to fix a ceiling of domestic borrowing by the government.

Once primary areas of political, governance and security related disorders are addressed, it would translate into an enabling environment for economic growth.


While the challenges are phenomenal, the solutions are within the reach of our national capacity. There is a need to adopt an integrated multi-sectoral corrective strategy. Improvement in each identified area will radiate its positive effects in other areas. While public opinion is heavily tilted in the favour of comprehensive reforms, political will is the essential tool to channelize the aspirations of the people.