Is There Any Way to Fix Pakistan?

From washed-out roads and bridges to the frayed state of Islamabad politics, Pakistan is a country in sorry shape. An FP special report on how things could go from bad to better.


High-level talks between Pakistan and the United States this week in Washington have put the spotlight on Islamabad’s frayed diplomatic ties with the West. Pakistani leaders have had to absorb accusations that they are giving safe harbor to the Taliban and terrorists including Osama bin Laden and hampering the NATO mission in Afghanistan. They also face pressure from a Pakistani public hostile to the United States and angered by increased drone strikes.

But Pakistan is wracked by much more fundamental problems than the intricacies of managing international alliances: After this summer’s floods, Pakistan teetered on the brink of failed state status. The waters have largely receded, but they’ve left in their wake a landscape of despair. The need for immediate disaster relief has given way to the questions of how to return millions of displaced Pakistanis to their homes, when to begin rebuilding the country’s destroyed infrastructure, and how to provide basic provisions like clean drinking water to the indigent.

The United States has signaled its willingness to help, but Pakistan will largely have to travel the road to recovery on its own. Here are 5 ideas on how it might best make the journey.


By Imtiaz Gul

This week’s high-level talks between the United States and Pakistan are being formally led on the Pakistani end by the country’s foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi. But the success of the dialogue will hinge less on whether the two countries’ civilian leaders can see eye to eye, and more on whether their military leaders can. As such, most attention will be focused on another Pakistani official: Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the chief of Pakistan’s army.

It is hardly a secret, of course, that Pakistan watchers in and out of the U.S. government suspect that the country’s army and intelligence apparatus is not exactly on the level with its Western ally. “The bitter truth is that the current state of affairs — in which Washington indefinitely subsidizes Islamabad’s sustenance of U.S. enemies — poses far greater dangers to the United States,” Ashley Tellis, a South Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote this month in Foreign Policy. Meanwhile, things in Afghanistan have already gone from bad to worse, and U.S. President Barack Obama, who still believes he can gradually extricate his troops from Afghanistan, is reportedly offering Pakistan a multi-year military cooperation pact and $2 billion dollars for reinforcing the Pakistani army — not a bad investment, if it works.

If the United States does manage to negotiate a gradual drawdown in troops from Afghanistan after July next year, it will be in part because of this deal. But it also hinges on Kayani and his relationship with the top echelons of the U.S. military. The 59-year-old four-star general has been talking with his American and NATO counterparts ever since he took over the top army job from Pervez Musharraf in November 2007, voicing the usual complaints: The United States and NATO need to trust Pakistan and can’t be seen as ordering its ally around or interfering in its internal affairs. “Partnership [with the United States and NATO] doesn’t mean you say and we act,” he said in a recent briefing. “It is a bond based on consideration of mutual interests. We cannot compromise or undermine our interests by agreeing to your demands.”

Pakistan has to reconcile its long-term interests with the short-term objectives of the U.S.-led coalition forces. Afghanistan will remain fragile, Kayani believes, “until at least 70 percent of security is handled by the Afghans themselves.” And India, as ever, remains Pakistan’s top concern: The latter’s military strategy, he has said, “has to be India-centric because Indian defense doctrine is Pakistan-centric.”

There is little doubt that Kayani, who served as the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence before becoming the army chief, means business. While he acknowledges the value of good relations with the U.S. military establishment, he also keeps reminding visitors of the importance of trust and respect in collaborative efforts such as counterterrorism operations along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. He is very clear about the limitations of his own army as well as the liberty available to the coalition forces across the Durand Line. His outspoken criticism of the U.S. Marines’ “reckless actions” in South Waziristan two years ago — in which a Marine raid on the village of Angoor Adda left 20 people dead — as well as the recent 10-day closure of the strategically crucial supply route across the Pakistani border in retaliation for last month’s U.S. attack on a Pakistani military post in the Kurram tribal region bordering Afghanistan reaffirmed that Kayani’s army will not let such incidents go unchallenged.

But much of the friction, the general insists, stems from what he sees as the West’s — and the United States’ in particular — inclination to view Pakistan through the prism of India. Until that ends, and outsiders empathize with the Pakistani position on India, the Pakistani army will not change its posture toward its eastern border — and with it, the long-term strategic considerations that are affecting its cooperation on Afghanistan.

Kayani will likely repeat this message in Washington. He might also try to warn the Obama administration not to slight Pakistan on the president’s visit to India next month, as President Bill Clinton did in 2000 (Clinton spent five days in India and less than five hours in Islamabad). Skipping Pakistan will only inflame a Pakistani public already seething over the U.S. invasion of Iraq, America’s military involvement in Afghanistan, and of course what is perceived as unquestioning U.S. support for Israel to the detriment of Palestinians. Such slights always feed into the narrative that al Qaeda and its Pakistani auxiliaries love to promote: American disdain for and discrimination against Muslims.

The United States has undoubtedly been generous with its checkbook: It has set aside $400 million to help Pakistan cope with this summer’s devastating floods and has promised another $1.5 billion dollars over the next five years. This money is important — it moves things. But gestures are important, too — and an Obama visit to Islamabad on his way back from Delhi, Pakistani civilian and military officials argue, would go a long way.

Imtiaz Gul runs the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad, and is the author of The Most Dangerous Place: Pakistan’s Lawless Frontier. 


By Shuja Nawaz

Addressing the current crisis in Pakistan at the 26-country Friends of Democratic Pakistan gathering in Brussels last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton didn’t mince words. “Pakistan itself must take immediate and substantial action to mobilize its own resources, and in particular to reform its economy,” she said. “The most important step that Pakistan can take is to pass meaningful reforms that will expand its tax base. The government must require that the economically affluent and elite in Pakistan support the government and people of Pakistan.”

It was sound advice for a country whose problems were easily identifiable but enormous even before this summer, when an area the size of the U.S. Eastern Seaboard was devastated by catastrophic flooding. In Pakistan, almost nobody who is powerful enough to get out of doing so actually pays taxes; the leaders of government, opposition parties, and high society do their utmost to avoid them, even as they demand that the state provide them with extensive services. Under pressure from the International Monetary Fund, a new economic team has begun making efforts to change that system and move Pakistan to a higher tax-to-GDP ratio than its current 9 percent. But these efforts will likely run into a roadblock in parliament — and as always, the key test will be whether the country can actually implement them at either the federal or the provincial level, where reform efforts in the country usually go to die.

The lack of a tax base matters because it deprives the government of the resources it needs for development and to deal with its current disaster, which has affected some 20 million largely rural poor. Even three months after the flooding began, many of these people remain homeless, and most have lost their farm animals, equipment, and seed stock. The effects of the decimated harvests are beginning to be felt by the rest of the country; the threat of cotton, wheat, and rice shortages looms.

Without cotton, Pakistan’s textile industry — accounting for 38 percent of manufacturing and 8.5 percent of its GDP, and already operating at half capacity before the flood due to energy shortages — will find it hard to meet the overseas demand for its products. Pakistani officials in Washington this week will undoubtedly plead for greater access to the U.S. markets for their textiles, but the real question is what they can actually deliver. In addition to the flood damage, decades of autocratic rule — under which government controls allowed favored industrialists to reap huge profits from privileged access to scarce financial inputs and tax credits — have left many textile and other Pakistani industries uncompetitive with other developing-country exporters. The shock of the flood may shake these industries out of their complacency and offer the government a chance to make structural changes in its economic policies and incentive structures, but even so it will be an uphill climb.

The flood has also exposed, once again, the weakness of Pakistan’s civilian government. The Pakistani Army, as it often does, stepped into the breach to provide relief to the flood-affected millions; civil society groups and even private businesses set up relief operations of their own, too. But civilian governments at the provincial and federal level took their time responding, even though they had a comprehensive disaster response plan in their hands since the spring — and even though their failure to do so has further weakened their tenuous hold on the country. The Pakistani Army’s deployment of some 70,000 troops for relief work, for instance, has drained away resources needed for the fight against the Taliban insurgency in the country’s western border region by slowing down the rotation of troops, and social-service organizations allied with Punjabi militant groups such as the Laskhar-e-Taiba are operating in some flood-affected areas. The extent of this assistance has been overstated; early reports from the flooded areas indicated that more aid was being disbursed by Pakistani and U.S. military efforts than by the so-called jihadi groups, as was the case during the 2005 earthquake. But if the official relief effort slows down or disappears, radical groups will surely begin to fill the void.

The strategic dialogue in Washington this week between the United States and Pakistan will be a test for both sides of their willingness to move at full speed to meet this still-looming crisis. For the Pakistani government, that means stepping up to these responsibilities, daunting as they may be, and fully grasping the cost of inaction. For friends such as the United States, it means being ready to support the flailing country before things get even worse. It’s time to move from talk to action.

Shuja Nawaz is director of the South Asia Center at the Washington-based Atlantic Council. He is the author of the council’s recent report
Pakistan in the Danger Zone: A Tenuous U.S.-Pakistan Relationship


By Ahmad Rafay Alam

Before the floods this summer, grim rumors echoed in the corridors of the Ministry of Finance, the Planning Commission, and the State Bank of Pakistan: Pakistan was about to cross the precipice into economic free-fall. The floods, in many ways, only postponed the inevitable. The subsequent relief and renegotiation with multilateral lenders have given Pakistan nothing more than a chance to stop and catch its breath. The reality is, Pakistan’s infrastructure was a mess before the floods.

Meanwhile, the country faces two massive challenges — coping with reconstruction and staving off a complete economic malfunction. Comprehensive reports on the flood damage are just surfacing, and large-scale infrastructure projects are finally being discussed at the highest levels of government. This is the time to carefully chart a future course, because decisions now being made by political actors and their economic advisors on long-term flood-rehabilitation strategy will have repercussions on priorities assigned to budget allocations for decades to come. When it comes to literally rebuilding Pakistan, its villages and cities, these next steps are ever so crucial.

But where does one begin? It’s important that the full scale of Pakistan’s infrastructure problems is taken into account, and that means looking at the country as a whole as well as in its many parts. There are 11 distinct and overlapping climatic zones in Pakistan, and the manner in which each zone was affected by the flooding, if at all, depends on its location. 

In the Indus basin’s upper catchment areas in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan, for example, the destruction of bridges has literally left entire cities, urban settlements, and villages cut off from the rest of the world. People in this area may not have lost their lives or homes in as great numbers as were seen in Punjab and Sindh, but lack of access to roads and markets will almost certainly stymie any rehabilitation and future development. In Punjab, flooding caused by burst embankments has resulted in extensive damage in Muzaffargarh district. There, entire villages along with government infrastructure — schools, dispensaries, police stations, and hospitals — have simply been swept away and need to be replaced. In Sindh, damage caused by the floods has affected the next cropping season. There, subsistence farmers are looking for means to ensure their families can get at least one meal per day.

Clearly, any response by the federal or provincial governments must be sensitive to the diversity of the flood relief and rehabilitation effort. However, a crucial element necessary for relief efforts is missing — that is, input about the needs and demands of each flood-affected area provided by a representative local government system. This entire third tier of government is in a state of flux, and has been since the 2008 general elections. Elected political actors, especially in Punjab, have yet to finally decide the framework of a new local government system. Meanwhile, with the ability of local governments to engage in flood relief and rehabilitation compromised by this political uncertainty, the ability of provincial and federal governments to tailor relief efforts will remain stunted.

In the past, top-down economic planners might have been more inclined to, say, commission a billion-rupee highway or dam rather than invest monies in human resources or environmentally sustainable means of transportation or electricity generation. These decisions haven’t always been wrong. Pakistan’s industrial development from the 1960s onward very much premised itself on this type of development theory. But Pakistan in the 1960s is totally different from the Pakistan of today. The old rules for repairing Pakistan don’t apply anymore. Since the 1960s, development planning has moved beyond the “if you build, they will come” paradigm and now incorporates elements such as governance and human resource management. Yet governance and human resource management are issues that government, to this date, scarcely debates. 

As a developing country, Pakistan has almost always been dependent on foreign investment to finance its infrastructure projects. This is also the case post-flood. Political actors and the bureaucracy in Pakistan must take care not to fall into the familiar pattern of abdicating to foreign lenders the responsibility of planning and executing infrastructure development. Again and again, long-term holistic development planning is replaced by multilaterally funded project-based development. This is a pitfall that makes Pakistan even more vulnerable given its political instability and the relative stability foreign investment brings.

But what is the right model of infrastructure development for Pakistan, and where will it come from? There is a growing view, in Pakistan’s Planning Commission, of all places, that international aid and lending isn’t working and that Pakistan can solve its economic and development problems with home grown solutions. This view holds that there is an immense wealth of capital locked in the country’s urban centers by an archaic property law regime and that this capital can be unlocked by introducing a cadastre system of title registration and loosening colonial-era building regulations. This view holds that if civil-service perks are monetized, the stranglehold the bureaucracy has on the status quo and development paradigm can be removed. This view holds that if government adventurism (and expenditure) can be curtailed, there will be space and money available in the private sector that can spur economic activity and investment in infrastructure development.

But what this view assumes is that Pakistan is flush with political will and leadership. These are two commodities that, sadly, are in short supply. It would be unfortunate if the Pakistani government and state did not take this opportunity to realign its infrastructure development priorities and bring them into the 20th century. The manner in which the Pakistani state assumes its responsibility to its flood-affected population will define the citizen-state equation in Pakistan in the near and mid future. However, at this stage, one can only pray for the will and leadership that can produce a new equation.

Ahmad Rafay Alam is a member of the department of law & policy at the Lahore University of Management Sciences and the department of architecture at the University of the Punjab, and a  columnist at the News and Express Tribune. You can follow him on twitter at


By Nancy Birdsall, Wren Elhai, and Molly Kinder

Pakistan’s worst-in-memory floods, covering a geographic area that would stretch from Maine to North Carolina, have put the country at grave risk of slipping even deeper into chaos. The floods alone are more than any government should have to bear, and Pakistan faces them handicapped by an active insurgency, an already beleaguered economy, and a fragile civilian government. Yet, if Pakistan is to be a secure, legitimate, and capable state — as well as a reliable U.S. ally — it must pull off a successful reconstruction effort.

Official estimates now suggest the cost of this effort could exceed the entire $30 billion annual budget of Pakistan’s federal government, making donor support — including from the United States — absolutely critical. Before the floods, Congress had pledged $7.5 billion over five years in non-military aid to Pakistan. Now, after the floods, those in charge of spending that money must ask themselves two questions: What is the most pressing constraint on economic stability and growth in Pakistan that can be improved by U.S. aid? And how can the United States ensure the greatest bang for the American bucks spent in Pakistan?

The floods fundamentally changed the problems Pakistan faces, and pre-flood plans to build new hospitals, refurbish power plants, and drill thousands of tube wells no longer address Pakistan’s top priorities. Flood-damaged infrastructure is now the main constraint to long-term economic growth and poverty reduction in the most populous and productive parts of the country. Farmers and factories need the very basics — roads, bridges, and electricity — before economic activity can rebound and people displaced by the floods can return to work. This year and next, the bulk of the aid money already allocated by Congress should be repurposed to rebuild schools, bridges, and the miles of roads washed away in the floods, and to restore Pakistan’s devastated farmlands.

These sorts of basic reconstruction projects offer the best hope for the United States to get results for its aid spending. Most of Pakistan’s long-term problems are not failures of money. They are failures of Pakistani government policy and administration in areas like energy policy, tax policy, education policy, and, of course, flood control and water management. No matter how much aid the United States and other donors give to Pakistan, sustainable development in those sectors will remain elusive unless Pakistan takes the initiative to pursue long-overdue reforms. Outside donors can’t simply cut a check for that kind of reform.

The United States should continue to apply constructive diplomatic pressure on Pakistan to fix these policies. It’s encouraging to see that one of the key messages Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and special envoy Richard Holbrooke have been sending in the wake of the floods is the need for Pakistan’s government to finally fix its tax policies and its system of tax collection. Meanwhile, however, donor money is better spent where it can make a real and immediate difference and where policy reforms are not the obstacles — namely, on restoring the billions of dollars worth of infrastructure destroyed by the floods.

What about legitimate concerns about corruption and waste in how U.S. reconstruction aid is spent? Given the enormous stakes, it’s time to pull out all the stops and consider out-of-the-box ideas to ensure aid money isn’t diverted. To make it easier to monitor this vast reconstruction effort and coordinate donor efforts, the United States could agree to replace all the flood-damaged infrastructure in certain districts, designated by the Pakistani and American governments. The United States could fund projects that help Pakistani citizens demand effective government services and could share more information on donor spending online. It was a good idea before the floods to be more transparent in our aid spending. In the context of a huge, multi-donor reconstruction effort, it is a doubly good idea.

Of course, reconstruction spending carries risks. It would be foolish to guarantee that all of the money will be spent perfectly or will always achieve measurable results. Furthermore, we should be skeptical that even a well-managed, well-funded reconstruction effort will convince the Pakistani people to shed their deeply critical views of the United States, or will gain additional cooperation from the Pakistani military in tackling extremism along the border with Afghanistan. However, compared to what the U.S. military is spending in the region to achieve eventual peace and stability — marked by strengthened economic opportunity and stable, democratic governance — putting money into development is an affordable bet with a potentially huge pay-off. For its own interests, the United States should be doing everything in its power to help the people of Pakistan weather this crisis successfully.

Nancy Birdsall is president of the Center for Global Development and chair of the
CGD Study Group on a U.S. Development Strategy in Pakistan
. Wren Elhai is a research and communications assistant and Molly Kinder is a senior policy analyst at the Center for Global Development.

A. MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images

Interview: Mark Ward

As the acting director of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Washington, Mark Ward was among the top officials coordinating relief efforts — organizing everything from public health provisions, to temporary shelters and emergency food parcels — in the wake of Pakistan’s unprecedented floods this summer. Fortunately, he had experience both in the region and with large-scale disasters: Ward has also chaired the agency’s Tsunami, Pakistan Earthquake and Lebanon Reconstruction task forces; his most recent overseas post with USAID was in Pakistan as the mission director, serving from July 2002 through December 2003.

Here Ward talks about Islamic piety in disaster zones, the relentless battle against cholera, and American and Pakistani priorities as they move from the flood relief phase to recovery and reconstruction.

Foreign Policy: In the aftermath of the floods, what were the greatest health concerns?

Mark Ward: We were concerned about water-borne diseases, and cholera is probably the scariest because of how contagious it is and how lethal it is. We had a two-pronged approach: Prevent [the spread of disease] by getting clean drinking water into the hands of the people or some method to make clean drinking water, and then secondly, supplement the Pakistani public health service so that when a case is identified, we can deal with it very quickly and talk to the community about how to make sure it doesn’t spread.

FP: You said you were quite successful in dealing with the cholera outbreaks thus far. What accounts for the success?

MW: We used any number of methods. Probably the least efficient is trucking in clean water: It’s a problem when you can’t use the roads. Then there’s also chlorine tablets, which can clean water. But you can’t just hand this stuff out, you’ve got to teach people how to use it and you’ve got to teach them over and over again. We’ve learned over the years you can’t just go in and expect them to read the back of the package. It doesn’t work that way. On the curative side, we had luckily a couple of years ago invested in something called the Disease Early Warning System with WHO. And what this did is it set up a kind of a 911 system in the country where if a health worker at the lowest level, like a community health worker, saw signs of cholera, they were told who to alert in a chain of command.

FP: What types of programs or causes do you think we, or Pakistan, should focus on that we’re really not focusing on right now?

MW: Shelter. It’s a different challenge than in the immediate relief phase because you’re not talking about some temporary shelter — you’re now talking about what we would call transitional shelter because people have moved home. In some parts of the north, there may not be enough time to rebuild permanent housing for the winter, so just like we did during the 2005 earthquake, we will give them some materials to allow them to build what we call “one warm dry room” so they can get through the winter.

Another thing that is very important for recovery is agriculture. Obviously people need food. We can continue to provide food, but it is such an enormous number of people and as they go home, they have the ability to plant and grow the food themselves. For the vulnerable farmers, the ones with less than two acres, we’ll give them seeds and fertilizer so that they don’t have to rely on the free food. Soon they’ll be able to raise their own food.

FP: Were there issues relating to religious sensitivities, given that foreigners and non-Pakistanis were delivering aid?

MW: They don’t see us very often. We do occasionally come to monitor, but USAID uses a lot of Pakistani surrogates out seeing how the work is going as well. And actually one of the greatest sources of education is the imams. And we always talk to the imams about using Friday prayers to teach hygiene. They consider that part of their job during Friday prayers.

FP: How have relations with the Pakistani government affected your work?

MW: Well, at my level, in terms of engaging on disaster relief, they’ve been great. I guess my only criticism of the Pakistani government is that I wish that the National Disaster Management Authority had been bigger and more experienced when the floods hit. It is a new organization, there’s not very much staff.

FP: When people on the ground in Pakistan say “USAID has done a good job working with the government, but this government is simply incompetent,” how do you respond to that?

MW: I try to be hopeful and say, let’s wait and see what the ministry of finance, what the planning commission, whichever part of the government, let’s see the plan that they put in front of the donor community next month — before we say they can’t manage their money. I know it is the hope of the United States — and I know many countries around the world — that the government of Pakistan will come up with a very good plan that’s very transparent with lots of accountability. If the government really wants  the donor community to funnel money through the government mechanism, they’re going to have to convince the donor countries that this is a process that works.

FP: Are U.S. relief efforts getting the credit that they deserve?

MW: Well, we are giving the most. But that’s not our first focus. Our first focus is getting the aid out there, trying to save lives: We’re looking at 20 million people affected. The marketing, yes, it’s important — it’s very important for the Pakistani people and the American people to know what our money is providing. But our first order of business is getting the aid out there.

FP: Many analysts have said that if the U.S. didn’t help Pakistan, that there’s a good chance the Taliban would step into that vacuum. Are you concerned that might happen?

MW: No. Our response has been huge. In other situations where we’ve found ourselves in the same space as extremist groups that are providing relief, there’s just been no comparison between the magnitude of our assistance and what they provide.


Andrew Swift is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy.

More from Foreign Policy

A photo illustration shows Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden posing on pedestals atop the bipolar world order, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and Russian President Vladamir Putin standing below on a gridded floor.
A photo illustration shows Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden posing on pedestals atop the bipolar world order, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and Russian President Vladamir Putin standing below on a gridded floor.

No, the World Is Not Multipolar

The idea of emerging power centers is popular but wrong—and could lead to serious policy mistakes.

A view from the cockpit shows backlit control panels and two pilots inside a KC-130J aerial refueler en route from Williamtown to Darwin as the sun sets on the horizon.
A view from the cockpit shows backlit control panels and two pilots inside a KC-130J aerial refueler en route from Williamtown to Darwin as the sun sets on the horizon.

America Prepares for a Pacific War With China It Doesn’t Want

Embedded with U.S. forces in the Pacific, I saw the dilemmas of deterrence firsthand.

The Chinese flag is raised during the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics at Beijing National Stadium on Feb. 4, 2022.
The Chinese flag is raised during the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics at Beijing National Stadium on Feb. 4, 2022.

America Can’t Stop China’s Rise

And it should stop trying.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky looks on prior a meeting with European Union leaders in Mariinsky Palace, in Kyiv, on June 16, 2022.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky looks on prior a meeting with European Union leaders in Mariinsky Palace, in Kyiv, on June 16, 2022.

The Morality of Ukraine’s War Is Very Murky

The ethical calculations are less clear than you might think.