The paradox of Pakistan

by Jonathan Montpetit, BA'03

It’s difficult to think of a major global security issue in which Pakistan doesn’t play a significant role. From nuclear proliferation to terrorism, from religious fundamentalism to cross-border tensions, Pakistan checks off all the boxes.

But outsiders – even seasoned diplomats – find the country perplexing. In the so-called “war on terror,” for instance, does Pakistan favour the West or the Taliban?

“Unless you have an understanding of the international politics of the region, you cannot explain Pakistan,” says James McGill Professor of International Relations T.V. Paul. “And unless you understand Pakistan, you won’t be able to explain international politics. There is this interaction.”

Paul’s new book, The Warrior State: Pakistan in the Contemporary World, offers some insights into the country’s seemingly perpetual instability.

“I wanted to bring out a comprehensive picture of Pakistan’s insecurity predicament and its lack of progress in the economic arena. It’s a country that deserves more attention.”

Paul believes that one of the principal factors driving developments in Pakistan is what he calls the “geostrategic curse.” Bordering both India and Afghanistan, the country is firmly positioned in one of the globe’s perennial hotspots. As a consequence, Pakistan has long been courted by the major powers since its fractious beginnings in 1947.

And those powers have often been all too willing to overlook the shortcomings of Pakistani leaders. While billions of dollars have been poured into Pakistan in the form of military aid, little of that money has been reinvested in schools, roads or public services.

That money has been pivotal in reinforcing the strength of Pakistan’s military, and, in particular, a cadre of about 500 officers that, according to Paul, wields tremendous influence.

Paul says the “hyper-realpolitick worldview” of this elite fuels Pakistan’s seemingly contradictory dealings with the Afghan Taliban – supporting and shielding them in some respects, while working with the West against them in others. It’s a “double game,” says Paul. On the one hand, Pakistan doesn’t want to jeopardize the vast sums of military aid it receives. But it also doesn’t want the Afghan state to develop into a regional rival.

And what about Osama bin Laden? Surely the fact that the world’s most wanted man turned out to be hiding a mere 500 yards away from one of Pakistan’s premier military academies was a devastating black eye for the country’s top military officials? Not necessarily, says Paul.

Military leaders pressured the civilian government to protest the U.S. Navy Seal mission that led to bin Laden’s death as a violation of Pakistani sovereignty, while U.S. informants were quietly rounded up and NATO supply routes into Afghanistan were cut off – a not-so-subtle message that there were costs for making an end-run around the Pakistani military.

Pakistan is far from the only country in the world to be dominated by senior military officials, but its dependence on foreign military aid and institutional donors such as the International Monetary Fund has had a particularly corrosive effect. “They are able to patch over the deep problems,” Paul says. “As a result, they haven’t created the kind of civil society that has been the engine of economic and democratic transformation” in other Asian countries.

While there is no shortage of religious schools in Pakistan, thanks to a flow of money from Saudi Arabia, the educational system isn’t producing the kind of workers that the country needs to spur economic development. “They don't have the technically qualified workforce to make use of the global common,” says Paul. "There is a lack of innovation."

Moreover, Pakistan’s never-ending rivalry with India soaks up resources that could be better spent elsewhere. “They are trying to compete at multiple levels with an entity that is six to eight times larger in terms of parameters of national power.”

Paul does see some cause for hope in the new government of Nawaz Sharif, who has pursued negotiations with the Taliban and closer trade ties with India.

“If he can get the military to go along with that process, then he can succeed,” says Paul. “The problem is, we don’t know what the military will do.”