Cyprus Mail
Guest ColumnistOpinion

Pakistan on the brink

By Akbar S. Ahmed

The election of Nawaz Sharif this past spring as prime minister of Pakistan offers cause for cautious optimism. Pakistan has an almost intractable set of problems, and Sharif has the understanding, experience, and political capacity to tackle them.

Pakistan’s economy is in desperate need of revival. The country’s basic infrastructure is woefully inadequate. Corruption remains rampant. The daily lives of Pakistanis are clouded by the constant threat of violence. The people are tired of all the promises of improvement from a succession of ineffective governments. They are beyond impatient. The situation is volatile and could easily spin out of control.

Adding to these domestic issues is Pakistan’s important and sensitive international situation. Bordered by India, China, Afghanistan, and Iran, Pakistan stands at a strategic crossroads. It has been deeply affected by the spillover effects of events beyond its control, particularly the brutal Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and, more immediately, the post-9/11 intervention by NATO forces and the emergence within Pakistan of the havoc-wreaking Pakistani Taliban, or Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

With the imminent withdrawal of foreign troops, Pakistan faces a new set of potential problems. Continuing American drone strikes aimed at terrorist targets in Pakistan’s bordering tribal provinces are killing innocent civilians, boosting terrorist recruitment, and deepening existing resentment of the United States. The 2011 raid carried out by the United States that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad made things even worse. Pakistanis view it as a breach of their country’s sovereignty, while the United States makes the accusation that the Pakistanis knowingly harbored bin Laden.

The solution to all of these problems lies in the fundamental issue of law and order – not rhetorical law and order piously mouthed by politicians in Islamabad, but real, on-the-ground law and order. It’s the only thing that, if improved, can bring stability to a people eager to go about their lives in peace and security. This stability, in turn, can foster investment and economic development.

Much depends on Nawaz Sharif’s resolve to solve these problems. If he does not, Pakistan, a nuclear power, risks collapsing into anarchy.

As someone who had the privilege, as a member of Pakistan’s civil service, to hold a number of key administrative positions in border districts, I would argue first for a return to a more traditional approach to governance.

The three key pillars of authority at the district level were traditionally the tribal chiefs, the religious leaders, and the central government authority. They operated symbiotically to assure a measure of stability. All three have been shaken, broken, or destroyed. Reviving these structures of authority will help check violence and reinforce a more just, efficient, and accessible kind of administration.

Under Sharif’s leadership, Pakistan and the United States have to defuse the deep, toxic distrust they have for each other. The revelation that the Pakistani government has been playing a double game with its own people by privately condoning drone attacks while publicly denouncing them only muddies the waters. Meanwhile, accusations from the other side about alleged Pakistani complicity in anti-American terrorist attacks only entrenches the current view of the United States as an arrogant, powerful bully. There’s too much at stake for both sides to let this situation fester.

Sharif has the credibility to effect real change. He was brought to power in a legitimate democratic election – the first time a civilian government in Pakistan completed its full term and handed over power to another democratically elected government. This is also Sharif’s third term as prime minister – itself unprecedented – and he likely wants to leave a positive legacy. None of this, however, makes his actual task any easier.

Nawaz Sharif understands the challenges facing Pakistan. He needs to act quickly and effectively. Pakistanis are unlikely to tolerate yet another government that cannot deliver on its promises.

Akbar S. Ahmed, an author and anthropologist, is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies and professor of International Relations at American University in Washington, D.C. He served in several administrative positions as a civil servant in Pakistan, and was Pakistan’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom from 1999–2000.

This article originally appeared at

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