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Pakistan: 75 Years of Independence — At Best a Mixed Report Card

17 Aug 2022
By Dr Claude Rakisits
Pakistan flags in the air. Source: Amnagondal, Wikimedia,

Pakistan has been independent for 75 years. However, the country is still plagued by deep structural problems that have hindered its political and economic development. 

On 14 August, Pakistan will have been an independent state for three-quarters of a century, having been created as a homeland for Indian Muslims when British India was partitioned into two sovereign states in 1947. 

Sadly, Pakistan has little to show for its 75 years of independence. Nevertheless, the fact that it is still an independent state is itself a success. However, the Pakistani government will need to take some drastic economic measures to avoid an economic meltdown, which could make Sri Lanka’s financial crisis pale into insignificance.  

In many ways Pakistan started its existence on the back foot and has been trying to catch up ever since. Several external and domestic factors and events have contributed to the deep structural problems Pakistan is struggling with today.  

First, Pakistan’s two wings (East Pakistan—today’s Bangladesh, and West Pakistan—today’s Pakistan) were separated by over 1000 miles of hostile Indian territory. Moreover, from the very beginning — and still today — India has rejected the legitimacy of Pakistan. Complicating further the country’s external environment, Afghanistan has refused to accept the Durand Line as the official demarcation of the western border of Pakistan. This has meant that from its inception, the impoverished country’s economic and political development has been hindered by a nasty regional neighbourhood. 

Confronted with a challenging external environment, Pakistan turned to the US for military assistance and protection. However, the bilateral military relationship which developed subsequently was based on different expectations: the US saw Pakistan as a useful piece on the strategic checkboard of the Cold War, but Pakistan saw the US as a critical insurance policy against a much larger and stronger hostile India. Washington’s failure to come to Pakistan’s aid during the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pakistan wars, and its assistance to Delhi in the 1962 China-India war were significant turning points in the US-Pakistan relationship. They were pivotal in pushing Islamabad away from the US and into China’s strategic orbit.  

Faced with hostile neighbours—particularly India which was bent on making sure Pakistan failed in its nation-building project (Delhi was instrumental in Pakistan’s loss of its east wing in 1971), the military’s role in Pakistan’s security and governance spaces took added importance from the very beginning. With the military being the only credible and developed institution in the country, along with the public service, the military soon began to dominate the political space as well, thus stifling the growth of political parties. This was not difficult given that after Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father, died in 1948 most leaders were politically diminutive, parochial, and unfocused on the national interest. 

However, the military’s omnipresence in the broader national security space has come at a heavy price, domestically and externally.  

Pakistan has had four periods of direct military rule (well over 30 years) and the rest has been a hybrid civilian-military arrangement, with the military having veto power on all national security issues. Moreover, the limited political space that there is, has been dominated by two dynasties: the Bhuttos and the Sharifs. This political set-up has bred corruption and poor governance. Even more worrisome, however, has been the military’s indirect support for non-state actors that focus on Indian-administered Kashmir, such as Laskar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), for the last 30 years in an attempt to wrench Kashmir from the Indians. Similarly, the military has supported Afghan armed groups, notably the Taliban, that have opposed the different governments in Kabul over the last 40 years. Unfortunately, the presence of these non-state actors has triggered a rise in other militant groups that oppose the Pakistan state. This has resulted in the death of some 50,000 civilians in terrorist acts in the last 15 years. Some of these non-state actors, notably the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), are demanding the implementation of Sharia law throughout the country. 

Because of its large size, the Pakistan military (650,000-strong) consumes around a quarter of the federal budget. This is a grossly disproportionate amount of the national funds, thus leaving much less for other critical sectors, such as education, health, social services, and infrastructure development. The starving of desperately needed funds for those cornerstone sectors of society has asphyxiated the country’s economic growth and development. As a result, the central bank has had to regularly raise loans from external sources, such as the International Monetary Fund (the country is negotiating its 23rd rescue package since 1950), China and Saudi Arabia, making Pakistan one of the most bailed out countries in the world. The repayment of these loans has required more loans, and so the vicious cycle of indebtedness has continued. The national debt now stands at over US $131 billion. Rampant corruption and a minuscule income tax base (1 percent of the population) puts additional stress on the economic health of Pakistan, a country of 225 million people (5th most populous country) where more than 50 percent of the population is under the age of 30. On the Human Development Index, Pakistan is ranked 154 out of 189 (India is 131; Bangladesh is 133). About 25 percent of the population lives in poverty. This dire socio-economic situation is untenable and will only become more acute over time if nothing is done soon. 

The only solution is a rebalancing of the country’s funding priorities, and this means significantly reducing the military’s gargantuan share of the national budget. However, given that the size of the military is a direct consequence of the dangerous neighbourhood Pakistan lives in, only a significant improvement in relations between Pakistan and India, leading to normal bilateral relations, would allow Islamabad to reduce the size of its military. This would require a final, irreversible resolution of the Kashmir issue with a referendum held by the United Nations (UN), as required by UN Security Resolution 47 of 1948. The modalities of the referendum would not only need to be satisfactory to all Kashmiris but also address Pakistan’s and India’s security concerns. A reduction of the Pakistan army, as well as a commensurate reduction of its influence in the political sphere, would also give more breathing space for political parties and civil society to develop. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent political ouster was in large measure because he had fallen out of favour with the military. Of course, achieving such an outcome would require political will from the leaders of Pakistan and India–both nuclear armed states. And while the prospects of diplomatic negotiations on Kashmir seem remote today, international relations do not remain static. Things can change if the right incentive is there. If the leaders can be convinced—assisted by a credible external player, such as the US—that the long-term peace dividends are much higher than the present situation which has only brought misery, destruction, and the obscene wastage of billions of rupees over the last 75 years, then there is a serious possibility to move things forward. A normalisation of Pakistan-Indian relations would benefit the people of both countries immensely. Interpersonal links could blossom, and bilateral trade would grow exponentially. It would be a win-win situation for everyone. 

Too many people in Pakistan have suffered economic hardship for too long. It is time for this to end, before it is too late for everyone.  

Dr Claude Rakisits is an Honorary Associate Professor in the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University. He is also a Visiting Research Fellow at the Brussels-based Centre for Security, Diplomacy and Strategy. His twitter is @ClaudeRakisits.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.