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> Challenges before Pakistan
A Discussion with Mr. Stephen P Cohen
January 29, 2005
PILDAT Offices, Lahore



Mr. Stephen Philip Cohen, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Program, Brookings Institution, USA, shared his thoughts on the topic of ‘Challenges before Pakistan’ in the light of his recent book ‘The Idea of Pakistan,’ at a discussion of select group of intellectuals and academics organised by PILDAT on January 29, 2005.

The participants of the discussion included Senator S. M. Zafar, Chairman Senate Functional Committee on Human Rights and PILDAT Board of Advisors, Dr. Hasan-Askari Rizvi, Renowned Defence and Political Analyst and Member PILDAT Board of Advisors, Mr. Mujib-ur-Rehman Shami, Editor-in-Chief Daily Pakistan and Member PILDAT Board of Advisors; Mr. Sartaj Aziz, Vice Chancellor Beaconhouse National University and Former Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs and Finance; Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, MNA (PML-N); Mr. Irshad Ahmad Haqqani, Columnist and Resident Editor Daily Jang; Mr. Shafqat Mahmood, Former Senator and Provincial Minister; Maj. Gen. (retd.) Sikandar Shami, Director General NIPA, Lahore; Lt. Gen. (retd.) Javed Hassan, Principal, Administrative Staff College, Lahore; Prof. Rasool Bakhsh Raees, Political Science Dept, LUMS; Dr. Umbreen Javaid, In-charge Dept of Political Science, Punjab University; Mr. Brian Heath, Principal Officer, American Consulate; Mr. Brian George, Vice Consular, American Consulate and Mr. Rex Moser, Public Affairs Officer, American Consulate.

At the beginning of the discussion, Mr. Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, Executive Director PILDAT, thanked Mr. Cohen for his participation and presence in the discussion. He briefly introduced PILDAT highlighting that it is an independent research and training institution dedicated to strengthening democracy and democratic institutions in Pakistan. Mr. Mehboob invited Mr. Cohen to share his thoughts on the topic after which a general discussion on the issue could follow.

Introduction of the Speaker

Mr. Stephen Philip Cohen is a Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Studies Program at the Brookings Institution, USA. He is the author of the widely praised ‘India: Emerging Power’ (Brookings, 2001). He was a member of the Policy Planning Staff of the U.S. Department of State and before joining Brookings, was a faculty member at the University of Illinois, USA.

Views by Mr. Stephen Philip Cohen

Mr. Stephen Philip Cohen began his talk by praising PILDAT and said that organizations like PILDAT in Pakistan actually contribute to the optimistic feeling about Pakistan in his recent book that make one take the view of glass half-filled instead of pessimism. He said that he was impressed by the quality of research and other work done by PILDAT and also quoted it in his recent book. He believed that in his capacity as a researcher on Pakistan, he was willing to cooperate with and support the work of PILDAT in any way possible.

Moving to the topic of ‘Challenges before Pakistan,’ he said that he will base his talk on presenting his ideas on Pakistan’s Possible Futures that he has outlined in chapter 8 of his book, after which he would look forward to a discussion on the topic by the fellow participants.

Terming it as his toughest book to complete, Mr. Cohen said that he had begun work on the book a year before 9/11, but it took four years to complete due to changing scenario after the coup d'é•tat in Pakistan and the changing US involvement with the country. The title of the book ‘Idea of Pakistan’ was given by Strobe Talbot, he said. Primarily written for the policy-making circles in the United States, the book also has subsequent Pakistani and Indian editions. Indians, he felt, dangerously misunderstand Pakistan and he is blamed as being too pro-Pakistan in India while it is the other way round in Pakistan.

As a researcher, he believed, he did not want to write a book that only just commented on the present-day scenario in Pakistan but one that has the capacity to look at the possible futures for 5-8 years down the road. He quipped that he had earlier planned to attach a percentage of likelihood with each of the possible futures but refrained from it when the percentages added up to 150%.

The first and the most likely scenario, the chances for which are around 40-50%, is that there will be a continuation of present establishment-dominated oligarchic system in Pakistan. However, major issues in such a scenario are demography, deteriorated education system and sectarian violence. In this scenario, political and strategic impact is that establishment searches for external alliances, there is a likelihood of little movement in relation to India while nuclear and missile production will continue despite weak economy.

The second possible scenario, for which there are only about 10% chances, is that a liberal and secular democracy is established in Pakistan. In this scenario, democracy could happen, but is likely to be unstable but more likely to revert to military rule, or to Islamist or personalistic system. Its political and strategic impact could include possible clampdown on sectarian terrorism, fresh effort at accord with India, somewhat more accommodating policy on nuclear weapons, but no disarmament.

The third possible scenario is of soft authoritarianism in which emergence of an authoritarian party, probably led by a charismatic leader, civilian or military, may take place. He termed this scenario to the possible rise of a benign Zia or Bhutto. However, he added, in his analysis, military or civil society did not appear capable of producing a charismatic leader at present. In any case, if such a scenario did emerge, it is not likely to be sustainable. Such a scenario may include continuing conflict of Pakistan with neighbours, greater human rights violations, possible rise of Islamist or democratic revolutionary forces, etc. He, however, felt that Pakistanis, by nature, do not have a taste for autocratic rulers.

The fourth possible scenario is that of the rise of an Islamist state in Pakistan,  of which too there are about 10% chances, he said. This scenario could be between a soft Malaysia or a hard post-revolution Iran. This could more likely be a modified Ziaist regime, a military-civilian coalition glued together by Islamist doctrine, with the military as the senior partner and could lead to a possible end of commitment to parliamentary democracy and a probable imposition of martial law. Its impact could include more open support of freedom-fighters, more visible and threatening use of nuclear weapons and possible strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia and Pakistani military presence in Gulf. Such a scenario and its likelihood, added Mr. Cohen, is the biggest fear in Washington which is encouraged by the Pakistani Govt. He, however, believed that this scenario could only emerge if Musharraf regime fails, and the regime following him also fails.

The fifth scenario could emerge that of a divided Pakistan in the eventuality that Army loses control over Pakistan which could only happen if it is divided up from inside but he did not see a possibility of that. The division of Pakistan may come about through several routes but all seem likely. Secessionist movements will only gain force and momentum if Army weakens up. This scenario could result in great danger of loose nukes, balkanization of rump Pakistan and intervention of foreign governments. He however termed this scenario as highly improbable with a very weak percentage of possibility attached to it.

The final likely scenario could be of post-war Pakistan. It could theoretically happen by accident or design, given the nascent state of Indian and Pakistani nuclear programs, or might come about through an escalation process. Mr. Cohen believed that Indians are planning a major series of continuing crises for Pakistan. The odds of a major war are in inverse proportion to the stability of the leadership in both India and Pakistan and the willingness of outsiders to manage regional conflict situations. Impact of such a scenario could include nuclear exchange that could end the modern state of Pakistan in minutes; a long drawn-out war might also ruin it. The rest of the world would be traumatized by any use of nuclear weapons and would certainly intervene, if possible.

Mr. Cohen believed that in his vision one of these scenarios or a combination of these scenarios could hold true for the possible future of Pakistan.


In the ensuing discussion, all participants presented their ideas on the possible challenges before Pakistan while commenting on the ideas put forth by Mr. Stephen Philip Cohen.

Beginning the discussion, Prof. Rasool Bakhsh Raees commended the insight of Mr. Stephen Cohen and said that he believed friends of Pakistan should support strengthening of democracy in Pakistan and not delay it due to a variety of reasons that are offered such as lack of literacy, weakness of civilian politicians and political parties etc. He said that he disagreed with the notion that Pakistan and its people weren’t ready for democracy.

Mr. Shafqat Mehmood said that one of the dangerous and understudied issues was the resentment of provinces against a predominantly Punjabi Army and the feeling in NWFP against operations in Wana area in NWFP and the Balochi population’s feelings against the extraction of natural resources and changes in their demography. These, he termed, were a grave issue confronting Pakistan and the present military regime and had serious potential of a real crisis. Agreeing with him, Mr. Cohen said that at his level of generalisation in the book, he had not covered it in detail but the feelings of alienation in provinces were a grave threat to the country and its federation. 

Expressing his views, Mr. Sartaj Aziz said that the advice to American policy makers that democracy and its strengthening are the foremost areas they should support has not been given its due priority in the book. In the context of India, which was not a homogenous nation, Indian leadership realised that the only sustainable way of keeping their country intact was democracy and that centralised leadership was disastrous. Indian constitution from the start recognised diversity of groups and recognised regional languages as national. Indian Muslims today are worse off than average Hindu in India and only those Indian Muslims become success stories who are ready to forego their Muslim outlook and inter-marry etc.

In the case of Pakistan, he said, everyone agrees that the best martial law in terms of economic growth was of Ayub Khan’s but that too resulted in the secession of East Pakistan. Gen. Zia-ul- Haq’s martial law resulted in emerging of nationalist and secessionists movements in the country which died down even with a façade of democracy after 1985 elections. Military rule, by its very nature, weakens the very democratic institutions because it stops their growth.

Another issue is, said Mr. Aziz, that Pakistan suffers from global fault lines and is in a way a melting pot of global fault lines. Russian invasion resulted in the rise of Jehadi culture in Pakistan. Palestinian problems too results in displaced groups to find a safe haven and establish themselves in a poorly-governed Pakistan. Eventually, he believed, Pakistan is blamed for all of this. In fact it should not only be compensated for all of this but western powers should also accept their part of the blame in creating such situations. 

Indian dimension of the problem also complicates the issue, said Mr. Sartaj Aziz. Pakistan has a hostile neighbour in the shape of India and to safeguard its territory and ensure its security, it has to spend on defence in large proportions, though not to the percentage that India spends. World, however, is totally oblivious to the security problem of Pakistan, he added.

Mr. Aziz also quipped that it is too much of a consequence that each time United States needs Pakistan there is a military government here. If the military believes civilians are not good enough to run institutions, the logical conclusion will be to build civilian institutions but that is not done. Avenues of civil military interactions are required in Pakistan but the present National Security Council is just a way to ensure military supremacy and will be wound up as soon as the present regime goes, he added.

In response, Mr. Cohen said that he has discussed in the book that the US Ambassador in Pakistan is almost like a cabinet minister, although in most of his discussions with former ambassadors, he was told that they were involved into internal affairs of Pakistan despite their wish to stay out of those. It is a misfortune, he added, that amongst Pakistan’s allies, United States is the only country that presses for democracy as Saudi Arabia and China have democracy as least of their concerns.

As for condition of Indian Muslims, he said that he had not seen an empirical study that average Indian Muslim did worse than a Hindu in India. In Pakistan too there are a lot of groups and communities who have not enjoyed equal opportunities of growth. The tragedy in Indian Gujarat strengthens the idea of Pakistan. It is however one of the strengths of Indian systems that there are attempts towards enquiry of the incident, he added.

Ms. Umbreen Javaid said that despite military rule in country, governance was not improved. Ordinary person in Pakistan does not trust US and the continuity of its support towards Pakistan while it is felt that US policies in the region are pro-India. Mr. Cohen said that Indians complained of a pro-Pakistan tilt in US policy. US policymakers do not view of their policy towards the region as a balancing act. US policy looks at its own interest with both countries. The policy is not pro-active but if there were a crisis, US would be involved in diffusing it. Policy makers in US only look for outside help of scholars or think-tanks in United States when there is an extra-ordinary requirement to do that and under normal circumstances, State Department and Pentagon etc. consider themselves to be capable of conceiving and running a policy, he said. He believed that instead of the current policy, US policy should be pro-active in the region. Indians do not want US involvement in this regard but only want US pressure against Pakistan to achieve their own ends, he added. 

Mr. Mujib-ur-Rehman Shami enquired that Mr. Cohen’s book said Pakistan could not progress without a supportive US and a tolerant India but did he see India as being tolerant? In response, Mr. Cohen said that India would love to have a Western Bangladesh and a weak government, but a nuclear weapon in Pakistan has served as a deterrent against that wish. Thoughtful Indians are looking towards normalising relations with Pakistan. Unfortunately, he added, the current Congress Government does not have a single person who is sympathetic towards this cause. He said that Indian press quoted him by writing that Pakistan India talks were doomed and he agreed with that. In his view the opportunity for talks has passed. He also did not see future governments in India wanting to negotiate peace with Pakistan. Present Indian policy towards talks is so tedious it is like watching paint dry, he said, so he did not see any real result emerging from it. At best the efforts already undertaken in this area such as cricket matches etc may serve as a foundation of some normalising of relations between the two countries.

Sardar Ayaz Sadiq said that Gen. Musharraf and United States had a lot in common as both let the people of Pakistan down after they had put their trust in them. He said that the likelihood of nuclear technology going into the hands of Islamists or terrorist groups in case present regime goes was nil as the military had the capacity to defend Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

Mr. Cohen said that Pakistan has been too dependent on United States and he had always felt this should not be the case. But dependence on others appears to be adopted by design in Pakistan’s policy. On the issue of uniform, he said that he never expected Gen. Musharraf to take off his uniform as he promised. But he should have a time-table that he should take the political leadership in confidence on. Military’s retreat from political arena has to be phased, he added and he hoped that the current regime had an exit strategy and a plan to do so that it must share with politicians. Politicians should also ensure that they have no vengeance against generals for them to feel confident to step out. There is a need for a Reconciliation Commission and a dialogue between civil-military on the pattern of South Africa. PILDAT is in ideal position to do it, he added.

Lt. Gen. (retd.) Javed Hassan said that he sensed the vibes in the room that Army has Bonapartist tendencies and what was Mr. Cohen’s view on it? Mr. Cohen believed that some individuals in Army may have great ideas to be the saviour but overall he did not think Pakistan Army had the tendency. The real issue, however, was of the utter contempt Army had for civilians and what they thought were the incompetence of the civilians to run the affairs of the country. No real movement forward on Army’s role away from politics could take place unless a deeper understanding in the Army is cultivated that civilians are the only people capable of running the affairs of the country, he said.

Maj. Gen. (retd.) Sikandar Shami said that some analysts believe that what is happening in Wana and in Balochistan may be the result of US involvement. Mr. Cohen said that it may be true but he could think of other countries who would want to inflame forces such as Balochi Liberation organisations. Maj. Gen. (retd.) Shami also urged Mr. Cohen to read Urdu press in Pakistan to understand the country better as it was more representative of a vast population and readership’s views.

Dr. Askari said that there has been a recent study in the US about the possibility of threat of nuclear weapons going into terrorist hands but such a possibility was ruled out in the result of the study. However, the study said that security lapses through the collusion of insiders and outsiders may result in some radio-active material going outside. He also agreed with Mr. Cohen on the probability that the current scenario may continue but argued that economic issues and problems of ethnicity may explode. Another threat to this could be the blow-back of Pakistan’s role in Kashmir and Afghanistan. He also felt that a linkage to Iraq in terms of exit-strategy of US from Iraq and its involvement with Afghanistan will also have its consequences for Pakistan.

Mr. Cohen agreed with Dr. Asakari’s analysis and added that he deeply regretted the timing of US invasion of Iraq simply because it amounted to neglecting the situation in Afghanistan. He agreed that there will be likely implications of US foreign policy in this region.

Participants also believed that US will have a stronger relationship with Pakistan if it dealt with a political government rather than an individual. There was concern on the growing corporate role of army in the country. Mr. Cohen recognised that the opening of media and its freedom in Pakistan was a positive sign.

In the end, Senator S. M. Zafar said that Pakistani society, temperamentally, was democratic which is why after every dictatorship, it returns to democracy. He thanked Mr. Cohen for his time, sharing of his views and his ideas. Senator Zafar, alongside PILDAT Executive Director and Joint Director, also presented Mr. Cohen with a PILDAT memento to commemorate his visit to PILDAT.