Pakistan’s Security Challenges

National security doctrines evolve gradually, shaped by institutional factors unless disrupted by drastic events. For example, the war in Ukraine has dramatically altered global security paradigms almost overnight. However, most changes in national security are incremental, influenced by state actors, interest groups, perceptions, and institutions. Once embedded in a nation’s structure, these doctrines become robust and resistant to change unless major events force a re-evaluation.

States with global aspirations face broader challenges compared to those focusing solely on domestic or regional security. Geography and proximity to military power centers heavily influence a state’s security concerns. Nicholas Spykman highlighted geography’s importance in defining security problems, while Arnold Wolters noted the complacency in insular states regarding military preparedness. Geography offers strategic advantages to insular states, while landlocked states face greater risks of military conflicts due to close territorial disputes.

For Pakistan, geography has been both a challenge and a benefit. Positioned between India, China, and Afghanistan, Pakistan navigates complex power struggles involving major global players like the USA and Russia. Its strategic location now places it at the heart of China-India-US dynamics. China’s rise as a global player, through initiatives like the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), has shifted the balance of power, making Pakistan’s regional relationships more crucial than distant international ties. Stable relations with its neighbors are vital, influencing its national security policy within a South Asian regional paradigm resistant to external pressures. This outlook partly explains Pakistan’s pursuit of power as a major regional player.

Power is the cornerstone of a state, defining its position and influence in international politics. It gives a state the leverage to influence others and seek parity with major decision-makers. As Morgenthau aptly put it, “The prestige of a nation is its reputation for power. That reputation, the reflection of the reality of power in the mind of the observers, can be as important as the reality of power itself.” Essentially, perception is as crucial as actual power.

However, raw power alone isn’t enough. The American experience post-WW1 demonstrates that even near-total superiority doesn’t automatically translate into a robust national security strategy. States often emulate successful innovations of others, particularly in military capabilities, to avoid being at a disadvantage. This competitive emulation can lead to heightened militarization, especially in states surrounded by enemies, as seen in Pakistan.

Pakistan initially positioned itself as the ‘defender of faith,’ viewing its foreign policy objectives through the lens of defending Islamic values. Created as an Islamic republic, Pakistan undertook special responsibilities to ensure ideological purity for the Muslim world, or ummah. Despite geopolitical shifts over the decades, this core goal remains. Pakistan has always projected itself as pivotal to the unity of the ummah, giving rise to a sense of ideational hegemony where upholding its values is a matter of national pride. This stance brings numerous threats, as the state must defend against both physical enemies and ideologies deemed threatening.

Pakistan, as an ideational Islamic state, has always aimed at ideological hegemony within the Muslim world. Its initial foreign policy aimed to achieve this leadership role. Although its alliances and geopolitical stances have shifted, the core ideal of being a champion of Islam persists, shaping its security worldview. However, this leadership role is fraught with ambiguity. Pakistan allies with the West yet supported the Afghan jihad and now faces Islamist jihadist threats. It possesses a strong military but has experienced numerous military takeovers toppling democratic regimes.

This ambiguity fuels internal conflicts and extremist indoctrinations. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP- a major terrorist threat to Pakistan), for example, exploits this by targeting the army, police, and paramilitary entities while appealing to the public to defend ideological purity. Despite being projected as a power, Pakistan faces economic and security challenges that undermine this perception. The narrative of being a victim of terrorism, the previous resentment over U.S. drone strikes, the burden of Afghan refugees, and a sense of unacknowledged contributions to the U.S. war on terror exacerbate this cognitive dissonance.

Pakistanis experience a clash between the reality of a fragile economy and infrastructure and the pride of being a nuclear military power. This leads to externalizing problems, blaming external powers for internal issues. Undeniably hostile forces threaten Pakistan’s stability, as is the case with any country having enemies, but the widespread belief in external blame hinders addressing indigenous problems.

Achieving coherence between political and military postures is essential for developing effective national security doctrines. Incoherence can lead to disjointed policies, often stemming from long-standing discord between a state’s civilian and military apparatus. In Pakistan, this discord is particularly pronounced, as civilian law enforcement agencies often lack the capabilities of their military counterparts.

Pakistan’s criminal justice system has been described as “anarchic,” empowering the elite while victimizing the underprivileged. During peak terrorism years, the judicial system was overstretched, with a conviction rate of just 5-10%. The Supreme Court faced a backlog of 1.4 million cases, a number that has only grown worse over time. The World Justice Project’s Order and Security Matrix highlights the challenges Pakistan faces. Pakistan’s low ranking among 140 countries reviewed illustrates its deteriorating rule of law. 

The public’s interaction with the state is limited to interfaces like the education system, land revenue administration, courts, and police. However, local patronage networks have transformed the law and order system into a market for dispute resolution. Inequality has decreased in urban areas, contributing to poverty reduction, but increased in rural areas, widening the gap for the unskilled rural poor. The 2022 floods exacerbated this issue, pushing more rural people below the poverty line.

Reform interventions have aimed to protect gender and minority rights, yet deep-seated structural inequalities and conservative values limit progress. Civil society has a dual history of activism while also fostering violent, community-based political organizations. Despite a decline in terrorism, the law and order system remains poor, with civilian law enforcement piggybacking on military successes rather than independently tackling threats like the TTP.

These dynamics erode trust in civilian governments. While Pakistanis value democratic principles, many feel they lack sufficient representation. Confidence in the military is significantly higher. A 2020 World Values Survey found 93.2% of Pakistanis had high confidence in the armed forces, compared to 43.6% in political parties. In 2014, many citizens supported military involvement in government despite criticism of political engineering.

Pakistan’s army, the sixth largest in the world, has till now enjoyed substantial popularity despite its history of undermining democracy, but that popularity is tenuous currently in the wake of the previous Prime Minster Imran Khan’s ouster. Many see this at the behest of the powerful civil elite-military establishment, while at the same time many others persist that this was necessary as Khan was leading the country to disaster. Army is seen as a powerful, functional institution shaping foreign policy, particularly regarding India and the US, and handling terrorism and natural disasters. Nostalgia for economic progress during military dictatorships persists among many Pakistanis.

The economic capacity of a state is a crucial variable that affects how power is exercised by its actors, such as armed forces and intelligence agencies. The magnitude of power a state can wield largely depends on its economic conditions. Rational decisions regarding national security are limited when a state faces economic challenges, a common issue for developing and underdeveloped countries. What might be a viable option for a financially secure state may be unfeasible for one grappling with economic problems. Socio-cultural factors like religion, ethnicity, and nationalism also play a part in national security uncertainty, especially during economic recessions and periods of ethnic and nationalist violence.

Robert Gilpin notes that “a wealthier and more powerful state will select a larger bundle of security and welfare goals than a less wealthy and less powerful state.” A state’s aspirations remain out of reach unless it has the resources to operationalize them. Government effectiveness, therefore, has a direct impact on the national security environment, especially in case of Pakistan now.

The World Bank Government Index Matrix captures the quality of public services, the civil service’s independence from political pressures, policy formulation and implementation quality, and the credibility of government commitments. According to this, Pakistan’s government effectiveness and regulatory quality have been consistently poor. This impacts the state’s ability to tackle problems through its apparatus. Market economy indicators and the state of democracy have also not improved. For instance, the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) measures transformation processes toward democracy and a market economy. Pakistan ranked poorly in 2020, at 101st on the Political Transformation scale, 106th on the Economic Transformation scale, and 111th on the Governance Index.

Pakistan’s worsening economic situation forced the PTI government to request a $6 billion bailout from the IMF, along with aid from China, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. These bailouts required several economic reforms, including devaluing the Pakistani rupee. However, Pakistan’s reliance on raw material imports for its assembly sector and decreased productive capability led to high inflation levels. The World Bank estimated that poverty in Pakistan increased from 4.4% to 5.4% in 2020, with over two million people falling below the poverty line. In 2020, 38.3% of Pakistan’s population (87 million people) were multi-dimensionally poor, with an additional 12.9% classified as vulnerable to multidimensional poverty.

Pakistan lags behind its neighbors in service delivery in almost all social sectors. The Pakistan Economic Survey reveals a literacy rate of 60% in 2018/19, up from 58% in 2015/16. UNICEF data shows a slight decline in the mortality rate of children under five from 69.4 per thousand live births in 2018 to 67.2 in 2019. WaterAid reports that 17.7 million people in Pakistan lack access to clean drinking water, and 79 million people cannot access decent toilet facilities. Some areas lack cohesive communication and transport infrastructure, forcing citizens to travel far for basic facilities like education and health. Pakistan also struggles with a power shortfall, leading to regular and unscheduled load shedding that devastates industry and commerce. 

Devolution to grassroots levels has not succeeded. Recent general elections were deemed grossly unfair, and local government elections scheduled for 2018 have not yet occurred. The PTI government preferred using ordinances instead of legislation, reflecting a concentration of power in the executive/military axis, a trend continuing with the current government. Challenges to established authority are common, preventing governments from completing their tenures. The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), an opposition coalition, used street protests for political leverage, leading to the PTI government’s ousting through a no-confidence motion. The military establishment is perceived to play a principal role in shaping Pakistan’s foreign policy and internal security.

The pandemic severely impacted Pakistan’s education system. A World Bank report indicated that learning poverty, defined as the inability to read and understand a simple text by age 10, was estimated to reach 79% due to school closures during the Covid-19 periods. It already stood at 75% when the pandemic began. These factors hinder Pakistan’s ability to compete internationally. The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report ranked Pakistan 110 out of 141 countries in 2019, a decline from 2018.

Pakistan’s economic struggles also invite taunts from enemies like the TTP, which highlight the state’s high levels of socioeconomic and political instability. This further complicates national security choices, making expansive Counter-Violent Extremism (CVE) programs challenging to implement. The current economic condition limits Pakistan’s ability to fully implement its National Internal Security Policy 2022-26 and National Counter Extremism Guidelines 2018.

Since 2021 terrorism has increased drastically in scale in Pakistan, reversing a downward trend of declining terrorism since past years. The trend reversed with a 42% increase in terrorist attacks, totaling 207 incidents, including five suicide bombings. This surge resulted in 335 deaths, a 52% increase from the previous year, and 555 injuries.  TTP, local Taliban factions, and Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) carried out 128 attacks, up from 95 in 2020, resulting in 236 deaths and 278 injuries. Balochi and Sindhi nationalist insurgents perpetrated 77 attacks, compared to 44 the previous year, causing 97 deaths and 255 injuries. Security forces and law enforcement personnel continued to face significant losses, with 177 killed and 218 injured.  The upward trend persisted in 2022, with terrorist incidents increasing to 262, including 14 suicide bombings, marking a 27% rise from the previous year. Further, in 2023, Pakistan experienced the highest number of terrorist attacks in the four-year period, with 306 incidents, marking a 17% increase from the previous year. This rise resulted in 693 fatalities, a 65% increase, and a significant number of injuries.  

Another factor exacerbating the terrorism scenario is that TTP’s relocation to Afghanistan complicates Pakistan’s counter-insurgency operations, as it shifts the locus of militant activity across the border. This requires enhanced coordination and cooperation between Pakistani and Afghan security forces, which historically has been challenging due to political tensions and mistrust. Pakistan’s military and law enforcement agencies must adapt their strategies to address TTP’s cross-border operations effectively. The presence of TTP in Afghanistan influences regional dynamics, potentially straining Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan and other neighboring countries. It also impacts broader regional security, given Afghanistan’s complex geopolitical position and ongoing instability.  TTP’s relocation has led to renewed resurgence in attacks within Pakistan, fueled by external sanctuaries and support networks in Afghanistan. 

Given these challenges, Pakistan faces a critical juncture in its national security and governance. Navigating complex geopolitical dynamics, economic constraints, and internal security threats requires a cohesive strategy that addresses both immediate concerns and long-term stability. As Pakistan grapples with these multifaceted issues, the evolution of its national security doctrines remains pivotal in shaping its future trajectory on the global stage. Balancing economic revitalization, social development, and effective security measures will be key to forging a resilient path forward.

[Image credit: TUBS, via Wikimedia Commons]

Dr. Syed Manzar Abbas Zaidi is a counter terrorism academic and practitioner. He has authored three books on terrorism and has written extensively about the subject in international journals. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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