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council on foreign relations, crisis guide: pakistan
Pakistan represents one of the world’s most troubling states in crisis. It is home to an array of terrorist groups that pose threats to international security and, increasingly, to Pakistan itself. It possesses a nuclear arsenal of about seventy to ninety weapons that is rapidly growing, and in the wake of growing instability, could become vulnerable to militants. Bordering a conflict-ridden Afghanistan and poised on a seemingly permanent war footing against India, what happens inside Pakistan’s borders matters deeply to the region and the wider world.
The considerable global efforts to pacify and stabilize Afghanistan ultimately rely on Pakistan’s cooperation. Its tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan serve as safe havens for militants battling U.S. and international troops across the border. In the 1980s, along with the United States and Saudi Arabia, Pakistan’s army and its military intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), helped foster many of these groups in the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. But following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on U.S. targets carried out by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Pakistan vowed to sever ties with these groups and support the U.S.-led war effort in Afghanistan. However, experts say some of these relationships remain alive as Pakistan plans for the day when the U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan go home. Pakistan’s army and intelligence services are also expected to play an important mediating role in any political settlement between the Afghan government and insurgent leaders.
The scope of internal terrorism and the influence of Pakistan’s violent Islamic fringe have surged during the past decade. The state—weighed down by internal rivalries, a fragile economy, and large swathes of territory outside its control—struggles to meet the militant challenge. Worse, some analysts say, the country’s most cohesive institution—the army—seems unwilling to tackle militant groups it has cultivated as strategic assets in its fight against India and its quest to retain influence in Afghanistan. Today, Pakistan, a country of 180 million people, is rapidly growing, with nearly 60 percent of the population under the age of twenty-four. High illiteracy rates, poor access to education and healthcare, shortage of resources such as water and electricity, and widening gender and socioeconomic gaps add to the state’s challenges. Political institutions remain underdeveloped and corrupt, dominated by feudal elites. The constant tussle for power between a powerful army and a weak civilian government has impeded social development and democracy.
The state is also beset by ethnic tensions, sectarian violence, and deep divisions over the role of Islam in society. Created as a home for Muslims of British-ruled India in 1947, Pakistan continues to grapple with the question of its identity—whether to be a secular democratic country for Muslims and other religious minorities, or an Islamic state. In many ways, Pakistan was almost an unintended country; it was not until 1930 that a separate country for Muslims in India was proposed by the Punjabi poet-politician Mohammed Iqbal. Even the name Pakistan was derived in a somewhat ad-hoc fashion, first put forth in 1933 by a group of Indian Muslim students at Cambridge University, England, as a rough acronym for Muslim-majority provinces in British-ruled India—Punjab, North-West Frontier (Afghan), Kashmir, Sindh, and Balochistan—that they hoped would make up the new state of Pakistan.