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Why Pakistan is not a failed state

December 24 2012



It’s been about a week since the Connecticut school massacre, and Americans are still grieving.

Yet we’re comforted by the thought that, with time, the bereaved community of Newtown will bounce back. Students will return to school, and victims’ families will somehow get on with their lives. This is because America, as politicians and the US media have intoned repeatedly in recent days, is a strong and resilient society.

For me, such words bring to mind another strong and resilient society — one that endures constant afflictions, tragedies, and privation. I can think of few nations that suffer more misery than Pakistan.

Pakistan certainly isn’t the only country where, in a span of hours, an infant can be bitten by a rat in a hospital nursery, and 16 people can die from consuming toxic cough medicine. This happened several weeks ago.

Yet, place these individual incidents alongside the unending onslaught of natural disaster, insurgency, terrorism, corruption, poverty, natural resource shortage, and disease. Now you can understand why so many Pakistanis suffer from PTSD, and are driven to desperate measures.

In 2008, in one of the most harrowing pieces of journalism I’ve ever read, Newsline’s Shimaila Matri Dawood wrote of Pakistanis murdering their children, jumping in front of trains, and setting themselves on fire — all because they couldn’t provide for their families.

Still, the aim of my final post of 2012 is not to dwell on Pakistan’s suffering. It is to showcase the remarkable strength and resiliency with which the Pakistani society responds to it.

When the 2010 floods plunged 20 per cent of the nation underwater, the government was largely missing in action. Yet doctors, housewives, students, and many others (not to mention the military) immediately deployed to the affected areas to render assistance. Of course, many Pakistanis minister to the needy every day, and not just after humanitarian catastrophes. Witness the tireless work of Pakistan’s living legend, Abdul Sattar Edhi.

Some of Pakistan’s citizen-first responders come bearing not relief or medical supplies, but inspiring words and campaigns that galvanise the nation. Malala Yousafzai certainly comes to mind — as does Sana Saleem, the free speech advocate recently named one of Foreign Policy’s top 100 global thinkers of 2012 (Malala made the list as well). Their ilk will increasingly take center stage as older generations — led by the likes of the late Ardeshir Cowasjee — retire from public life.

Then there are those Pakistanis who use their rare gifts to benefit the country. The tragically short life of Arfa Karim, the teenaged IT genius who provided computer training to the poor, is a shining example.

Also admirable are those who labor under the most difficult of conditions, yet still pull off extraordinary acts. Take journalists and doctors, many of whom are severely underpaid and overworked, and work in dangerous environments. Admittedly, some of them succumb to the stress (recall the surgeon who left operating scissors in a patient’s stomach, and the journalists who fell for the infamous Shamsul Anwar hoax). Yet many more shrug off threats to break critical stories, or save countless lives. I’ll never forget the young doctor I met last summer, who told me he constantly fears getting attacked at his hospital by livid people denied care. When I asked why he keeps going back, his answer was immediate and simple: “Pakistan needs medical care.”

And then there are the besieged religious minorities, who quietly persevere in a nation that refuses to protect them. It’s a wonder more haven’t fled.

Finally, there are the simple yet poignant acts of charity and benevolence — like the kids in Karachi who collect garbage every Sunday, or the Islamabad-based peace activists who travel to KP to speak to students about tolerance and nonviolence.

One of Pakistan’s enigmas is how it manages to “muddle along” despite its multitude of problems. The answer can be found in its people, who hold the country together. They are undoubtedly driven by patriotism, which runs deep despite the nation’s divisions. This is why I cringe whenever I hear Pakistan referred to as a “failed state.” So long as the Pakistani society remains strong, I can’t imagine how Pakistan can fail.

At least not yet.

The question, in the years ahead, is whether Pakistan’s resilient society can beat back the cresting waves of militancy and sectarianism that threaten to tear Pakistan apart and, one day, even plunge it into civil war. Balkanisation, more so than an Islamist takeover, is a very real threat to the Pakistani state.

Up to now, the Pakistani society has stepped in to provide services and fill roles where the government is absent. Yet this isn’t a sustainable strategy. To avert disaster in the decades ahead, the Pakistani state will need to step up — and provide the leadership and good judgment long exemplified by its society.

See you in 2013.

Michael-Kugelman-80x80The author is the Senior Program Associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. You can reach him at

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