Pakistan: A Year of Living Dangerously

As 2010 receded into the rearview mirror, Pakistan struggled to keep its head above water literally and figuratively. This was a Year of Living Dangerously: Pakistan faced disasters, natural and manmade, and continued on a path of trying to muddle through crises when it needed to take bold action and join other rising countries of the developing world. The situation at home and abroad did not appear to be ideal.


Domestically, Pakistan’s fledgling civilian government, a hodgepodge collection of parties with clashing interests and ideologies, was fraying. The Muttahida Qaumi Mahaz (MQM) party found itself resorting to threats of leaving the government after becoming embroiled in ethnic clashes with the Pakhtuns of Karachi. It has yet to find a political home elsewhere and is not strong enough to stand on its own outside the government. The one bright note for the MQM was its attempt to forge a national base for itself with forays into the Punjab and northern provinces. Theoretically, the MQM remains the only urban political party in a country that is heavily urbanized. A nationally based urban party could well rule Pakistan one day.

The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) continued to be riven by discord. Rumors of rifts between the president and the prime minister became routine. President Asif Ali Zardari appeared to continue to win his tactical battles by keeping everyone, including his own party members, guessing his next move. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani blew hot and cold with the opposition parties but seemed to have lost his stature with them and perhaps with the military. However, Zardari and Gilani are tied together by the need to survive their terms of office as long as possible, and both were threatened by the rising activism of the Supreme Court that kept them on the defensive by regularly testing their constitutional powers and with threats of reviving old cases. Meanwhile, the PPP seemed to want to devour its own members: attacks on a prominent stalwart, Sherry Rehman, for appearing on a TV channel proscribed by the government created a huge buzz. It was an unnecessary brouhaha that reflected a deeper issue for a party that seemed to be losing direction. And then there was the ever-present talk of a divergence between army headquarters and the presidency, fuelled by a lack of trust on both sides. The result: confusion at home and abroad.

The Pakistan Muslim League (PMLN) seemed to go through periods of indecision and action. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was said to be unwilling to challenge the government to the point of collapse since he did not wish to inherit the current mess. Later in the year, he appeared to be changing his mind. Yet he lacked the broad-based coalition that would transform his quest from a largely Punjabi base to a national one. His party too, like the other major parties of the country, continued to be run largely as a family enterprise. This made the democracy project a difficult exercise for the people of Pakistan.


Nature dealt Pakistan a serious blow in August, as the worst flood in 80 years devastated an area roughly the size of the Eastern seaboard of the United States, affecting some 20 million people. Nature’s devastation was worsened by man: Pakistan paid the price of years of neglect of the environment and unfettered deforestation on the one hand and uncontrolled habitation of flood plains on the other. The government claimed damage worth $43 billion. The World Bank and Asian Development Bank came in with a much lower figure: $9.7 billion. No one from the government has challenged that figure. Apart from the huge human misery that ensued, the aftereffects of the floods will linger into 2011 and beyond. What exacerbated the tragedy was the fact that although the government had a well-crafted and comprehensive Disaster Response Plan that it issued in spring 2010 (five years after the earthquake that prompted its creation), apparently little had been done to implement it at the center or the provinces. The National Disaster Management Authority needed to be grown to be able to deal with nationwide disasters. But no one had been looking over the horizon in government, past and present.

Magnifying this disaster was the apathetic international response, especially from the Muslim world, provoking a chiding by the late U.S. Special Representative Richard Holbrooke. The United States came in as the largest donor with some $400 million, followed by Saudi Arabia with more than $200 million. But the latter responded to a request from Pakistani Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, not from the civilian authorities, as did the United Arab Emirates. And donors preferred to come in via the United Nations and other bodies rather than the government. The dreaded lack of confidence in Pakistan’s leadership seemed to afflict these relationships. Aid was nowhere near the needed amounts. International aid seemed to be drying up even before 2010 rolled to an end, portending hunger and disease among the 20 million people affected by the flood. The danger of a rural-urban divide, with the flood affecting mainly the poorest of the rural poor, could have political reverberations for years to come.


On the economic front, the government managed to make some important progress on paper: agreement on a National Finance Award helped reorder the relationship between the all-powerful center and the provinces. The true test will come in the implementation of these plans and in the fiscal measures needed to restore budgetary control and balance. In late October, new Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh talked of cutting back the size of the cabinet with the shifting of powers to the provinces for certain portfolios. It was unclear how this would affect the tenuous coalition at the center, especially since the issue would have to be acted upon in the meeting of the newly reconstituted Council of Common Interests that brings together the leadership of the center and the provinces. However, the appointment of a new team of economic managers was a good indication that the government recognized the need for better governance on that front.

The program with the International Monetary Fund though was in jeopardy, as tax administration and revenues continued to come under heavy criticism and shortfalls. And inflation was on the rise while growth headed downward. Inflation may well be the cruelest tax of all, especially for the poor, who spend more than half their income on food. Flood damage led to food shortages and rising prices, well above the inflation levels predicted in the government’s response to the IMF program. Domestic challenges abound for Pakistan as it heads into the new year.


On the foreign front, Pakistan appears to be cruising without a coherent foreign policy. Tactics rather than strategy seem to be dominant. The country needs to reinvigorate its relationships with the Muslim world and China, and bring the U.S.-Pakistan relationship onto an even keel. But, as the third high-level Strategic Dialogue in Washington D.C. in October indicated, the military-tomilitary relationship seems to overshadow bilateral ties. The announcement of a fresh $2 billion military aid package strengthened that impression at the end of the Washington parleys. As the U.S. looks hopefully to an exit from fighting in Afghanistan, there will be pressure yet again on Pakistan to “do more” to help shut down the Afghan Taliban sanctuaries. Pakistan believes it can play a more fruitful role in helping reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban, although it is unclear how much control Pakistan has over these groups, including the Haqqanis in North Waziristan and contiguous Afghan provinces and the Mullah Omar group in the Balochistan border area.

The domestic situation in the United States changed after the November elections, as an ascendant opposition Republican Party took control of the House of Representatives and likely will assert greater control on foreign relations and economic assistance packages. The Obama administration will find it harder to push its agenda through a recalcitrant U.S. Congress, despite the current bipartisan support for aid to Pakistan. Moreover, the built-in waiver requirements affecting aid to Pakistan could trigger actions by Congress to stop some aid to Pakistan, especially military, thus increasing Pakistani resentment.

Myriad domestic and foreign challenges brought Pakistan to the edge a number of times in 2010. The country survives and even prospers in spite of its government, as civil society, an awakening judicial system and a newly established media raise some hope of political and economic development. The new year will bring new challenges no doubt. How the government and the people of Pakistan handle the current set of issues will determine how well the country fares and whether Pakistan’s friends abroad help or hinder the nation in its quest for stability and progress. §

Shuja Nawaz is Director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington D.C. He is the author of “Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within” (Oxford 2008 and paperback 2009) and the recent report from the Council: “Pakistan in the Danger Zone: A Tenuous US-Pakistan Relationship.” He can be reached at

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