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Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Future of Pakistan, By Stephen P. Cohen. Book Review

One might perhaps best approach The Future of Pakistan as one would an Agatha Christie novel. Read the opening chapter (Stephen Cohen’s comprehensive review of his own ideas and those of the other participants in the 2010 Bellagio workshop, and some others’, whose papers comprise the intermediate chapters) to find out who’s been murdered and where. And the last chapter, also by Cohen, in his capacity as this volume’s Hercule Poirot, to discover Who Did It and Why, systematically elucidating the various options and finally zeroing in on the suspect. Then, the reader might look in on the in-between chapters as a rich and tempting menu of dishes served up by twenty expert chefs from the US, Europe, Pakistan and India. Not, however, to be devoured at a single sitting but savoured over several meals. Writes Mani Shankar Aiyar in "Outlook India".

The exercise essentially boils down to suggesting that several things might happen over the next few years in Pakistan-or that, just possibly, none of them will. A rather foggy crystal ball, for Pakistan’s future is as ambiguous and confusing as its past.

The existential dil-emma appears to be that while Pakistan is not a “failed state”, if an ill-governed one, it has since its birth been a “failing nation”. Cohen in his afterword cites my favourite analysis of Pakistan, Farzana Shaikh’s Making Sense of Pakistan, who argues that while Pakistan is emphatically not a “country on the brink”, it is a nation without “a national purpose, notably the ambiguous but generous role accorded to Islam since 1947, which has restricted its progress ever since”.

My own view is that while Islam is what unites Pakistan, it is Islamisation that divides it-for, as Omar Khayyam wrote, “the two and seventy jarring sects confute”. Islamisation of the Zia-ul-Haq variety has only led to Pakistani communalism transforming itself from anti-Hinduism into vicious internecine sectarian rivalry, adding to the equally blood-letting ethnic rivalry among the various linguistic communities, thus calling into question its very nationhood. Pakistan being, as Cohen notes, a quintessentially South Asian nation, however strong the pull of West Asia, it is only as a nation that builds its unity on diversity, rather than by imposing unity through uniformity, that it can become a nation with a “national purpose”. Till that happens, it is the Pakistani state that remains the sole guarantor of the continuance of the Pakistani nation.

Cohen and most of his companions come to the conclusion that, doomsday scenarios notwithstanding, such as those portrayed by Benedict Anderson, whatever the failings of the Pakistani state, especially the unhappy role played by the military in its governance, it is the “establishment-dominated” state (Cohen’s phrase from his earlier The Idea of Pakistan) that ensures a future for Pakistan. That future would be much brighter if in place of the timid and transient “transformations” attempted by successive military and civil administrations, swinging between army-style authoritarianism and political bungling (brilliantly recited by Cohen in his opening chapter), the truly transformative one is undertaken of making Pakistan a fully participative democracy, Islamic in principle but pluralist in practice. That alone would cap, reverse and finally end the “failure of the economy, political incoherence, separatism, corruption and the rise of extremists” as the determining elements of Pakistan’s future.

It is the consensus of virtually all the contributors that for a pluralist democracy to stand a chance of taking root in Pakistan, the transformation of the India-Pakistan relationship is an essential prerequisite. The responsibility by no means rests on Pakistan alone. Cohen is as unsparing in his criticism of the intransigence of South Block (which houses PMO, MEA and Defence) as he is of the Pakistani military’s paranoia for the stagnation lurching towards crisis in the India-Pakistan relationship. On the one hand, there are the many social, political, military and even ideological imperatives, spelled out by Cohen and his colleagues, which point to an evolving change in the Pakistani mindset regarding the possibility of Indo-Pak reconciliation. Again and again, contributors to this volume almost stumble upon the growing realisation in all but the most extreme sections of Pakistani opinion that a reasonable modus vivendi with India would much better serve Pakistan’s long-term interests than barren confrontation. On the other is their clear articulation of the hurdles they see as insuperable in the way of achieving this consummation.

The choice is really up to India, for if hope is no substitute for policy, as former US secretary of state George Schultz is quoted as once having told Cohen, so also is despair no substitute, as a Pakistani diplomat retorted when Cohen passed on this remark. The velocity of change in mindset in much of Pakistan is greater than in most of India-for neither is the nature of our nationhood nor are the institutions of our state as tied in with the Indo-Pak relationship as they are in Pakistan.

If public and parliamentary opinion in India were awakened to the immense benefits to our security, our development, our standing in the world and even the consolidation of our secular nationhood of putting behind us six decades of unremitting hostility, and the elimination of the dangers for India arising out of either the Talibanisation or break-up of Pakistan (clearly seen by the Indian intelligence expert, B. Raman, in his contribution to this volume), the stage would be set for the current “composite dialogue” to be restructured as “uninterrupted and uninterruptible”.

This phrase has been picked up and frequently reiterated by the present Pakistan foreign minister since this book went to the press. This alternative thrust to the ongoing on-now-off-now dialogue remains the unwritten chapter of this otherwise penetrating analysis of all that bodes well and ill for our neighbour-and ourselves. —Courtesy Outlook India

Review By Dawn

Predicting Pakistan’s future is an impossible exercise. Its internal politics and external relations are far too uncertain and challenging, its susceptibility to extreme events too acute. But the international focus on the country and the fear that it is about to fall apart mean that scholars and journalists have developed an itch to try to foresee what is in store in Pakistan, and just how bad the world’s Pakistan problem can get.

But as The Future of Pakistan, a collection of essays edited by Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Stephen Cohen, shows, this is a futile exercise. The most analysts are willing to do is say that the country will, in the short to medium term, “muddle along”. No serious thinker wants to be the one to claim that Pakistan will become a failed state or splinter, or that it will be able to pull itself away from its current trajectory and somehow fix its economy, correct its civil-military imbalance, revise its policies regarding militancy, heal its internal fissures and create a more moderate society.

Both these scenarios seem highly unlikely in the five- to seven-year timeframe this book addresses. So the outcome of its various attempts to look into Pakistan’s crystal ball — it contains analysis by a number of Pakistani, Indian and Western scholars — is mainly to say that over the next few years the current status quo will likely persist, with a perilous economy, a weak but strengthening civilian set-up with a still-powerful military behind the scenes, difficult relationships with neighbours and the United States, ethnic and sectarian tensions, and growing extremism.

But what The Future of Pakistan does do is focus on a particular set of factors rather than others, and these choices are more interesting than the predictions that result. They include Pakistan’s relationship with India, as well as the ethnic tensions within the country that threaten to divide it deeply or even tear it apart. But again and again, in essays from analysts across countries and policy areas, two issues emerge most often.

One, the essays repeatedly highlight, in a way that other recent books on Pakistan have not, the demographic problem: a rapidly
growing population, and specifically, a rapidly growing young population, with an economy that is not growing rapidly enough to employ it.

This seems obvious until one is confronted with the numbers. Here is one set of sobering demographic statistics among several estimates the book presents: in 2030 Pakistan’s population will be 265 million, and by 2050 it will double to 335 million. The median age is 18 and 60 per cent of the country is currently below the age of 24. In 2030, there are expected to be 130 million people in that category. To employ this “youth bulge”, the economy would have to grow at over six per cent a year. But it grew at an average annual rate of only 4.9 per cent from 1971 to 2009, at 2.6 per cent last year and is projected to grow at 3.8 per cent this year.

Pakistan’s political upheavals and its complicated relationship with militancy and extremism are the stars of the global discussion on this country. But the prospect of such an enormous and expanding population of unemployed and underemployed young people, when added to Pakistan’s current economic and political problems, is staggering. The Future of Pakistan enriches the debate by giving this point the attention it deserves.

The other factor the writers here turn to repeatedly is the civil-military imbalance, a feature of every recent publication that tries to provide an overview of Pakistan. And this one suffers from the same schizophrenic attitude to the military that most of those books — and Pakistan’s own citizens — do. The military is seen as having interrupted the democratic process to the country’s detriment, yet time and again it is mentioned as the primary feature that would prevent a collapse of the state or the Balkanisation of the country. Ultimately, it is the one thing the analysts fall back on to prevent a doomsday scenario even as they complain that it has turned Pakistan into a security state.

The other feature of The Future of Pakistan more interesting than its predictions are the startlingly predictable biases it reveals. A retired military official is the lone writer to emphasise water disputes with India and insists that General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has been dragged into playing a political role behind the scenes despite his intentions. Some of the Indian analysts are deeply distrustful of Pakistani motives regarding India, but what is more unexpected is their tone and approach; several of their arguments are surprisingly emotional and biased rather than analytical. Western analysts focus on Pakistan’s confusion about its policy regarding militancy. Pakistani analysts are on occasion more optimistic and nuanced in their assessments about the country’s future.

Ultimately, though, despite each group generally conforming to its own expected opinions, The Future of Pakistan becomes repetitive. Asked to come up with their theories about Pakistan’s near future, analysts fall back on discussing the same challenges, point out that an extreme event — such as a Pakistan-linked attack on American or another one on India — could change the picture drastically, and conclude that there are unlikely to be major changes to the current status quo in the next handful of years. This is a more rational analysis, perhaps, than the failed-state narrative that was taking hold around the world a couple of years ago. But at the end of the day, it calls into question the purpose of trying to predict outcomes beyond a few months for a country whose day-to-day life is marked by more upheaval and drama than most other countries experience in years.

Reviewed By Madiha Sattar, reviewer is a Dawn staffer

The Future of Pakistan, By Stephen P. Cohen and others. Brookings Institution Press, Washington, ISBN 978-0-8157-2180-2