Attempting prophesy — with little success

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.

The 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
325pp. Rs 1,595


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