Encouraging things are happening in Pakistan, but an enabling environment for extremism and other problems within society threaten this very real progress.
Several years ago, a Pakistani economist lamented the lack of tower cranes in Pakistani cities — an absence, he said, that signified urban underdevelopment. In contrast, during a recent trip to Islamabad and Lahore, I saw evidence of development everywhere, from homes under construction to sparkling new shopping centers. Long-time locals in Islamabad said they no longer recognize their city because of all its new shops and restaurants. Even many parts of the sleek motorway linking Lahore to Islamabad are now lined with retail outlets.
Development is a useful barometer of a country’s trajectory. The presence of young people is another measure. This is because their fates, both good and bad, will collectively impact Pakistan’s direction over many decades, particularly in such a youthful country. The U.N. estimates that the median age is 22 and nearly 60 percent of the population is 24 or younger. As a percentage of total population, only Yemen has more people in this age group.
I spent time at the Lahore School of Economics and Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) — two of Pakistan’s most prestigious universities. At a time when many of the country’s best and brightest go abroad for education, the presence of the students — undergraduate and graduate alike, and many of them female — is encouraging.
So is Pakistan making progress? Yes. However, encouraging though it may be, this progress is also precarious. A variety of problems, especially violent extremism, could threaten Pakistan’s impressive progress. The horrifying March 27 attack on a public park in Lahore, just several weeks after my visit there, accentuates this risk.
Pakistan seems unable or unwilling to confront the extremist ideologies that drive militancy. As long as extremism persists across society, the likelihood of radicalization remains strong, even as today the country enjoys a relative respite from the relentless attacks of recent years.
Many Pakistanis with young children are constantly worried. One woman, speaking to me in Islamabad several weeks ago, explained that parents are terrified to send their kids to school — a fear stoked after the December 2014 Peshawar school massacre, rekindled after the Bacha Khan University attackin January 2016, and further fueled by recent Taliban threats to attack more schools. These fears were sadly prophetic. The Lahore park bomb detonated near a swing set, and at least 17 of the 74 people killed were children. Terrorist violence may be declining in Pakistan (the number of civilian deaths from terrorism was about 50 percent less in 2015 than in 2014), but for many people, and particularly those with children, fear of terrorism is increasing.
Additionally, Pakistan’s social sector is suffering. Indeed, in Lahore, a prominent economist admitted that education and health crises have failed to ease, even amid reductions in poverty and unemployment. When I asked him to account for this discrepancy, he struggled to come up with an answer.
Not surprisingly, very few Pakistanis — barely 5 percent — receive proper technical or vocational training to make them competitive in the job market. Many, particularly those from the lower and middle classes, routinely lose out on jobs that go to more well-connected and affluent applicants. Overall, the labor market has struggled to absorb young graduates into the workforce.
Demographers talk of Pakistan’s potential to reap a demographic dividend whereby its young people help engineer widespread economic growth. Unfortunately, due to crises in education, public health, and the labor market, Pakistan’s youth bulge is likely to be a burden for Pakistan’s economy. These challenges — and the grievances they engender among the youth — create an environment ripe for radicalization.
While many of the Taliban’s suicide bombers come from impoverished backgrounds, youth from across the socioeconomic spectrum are also drawn to extremism. Saad Aziz, the well-educated confessed killer of human rights activist Sabeen Mahmood, is an example of the spectrum. Nearly every terror attack committed in Pakistan since September 11, 2011, has been staged by someone under the age of 30.
The destabilizing consequences of youth radicalization could affect Pakistan for a long time — in great part, because its youth populations will dominate demographically for decades. The under-24 population will still be in the majority by 2030, and the median age is expected to be just 34 as late as 2050.
Today’s Pakistan presents a paradox of soaring progress and serious problems. Lahore exemplifies this paradox. One Lahore pulsates with economic activity and intellectual fervor: A vibrant and tolerant city where crowds pack into stores and restaurants. The other Lahore hosts Lashkar-e-Taiba leader Hafiz Saeed and is the gateway to militant strongholds in southern Punjab. These two worlds too often collide. When I was in town, the city buzzed with rumors that the beloved Lahore Literary Festival would be cancelled due to security threats (in the end it took place, though it was cut short from three to two days).
More broadly, there are two Pakistans. One is resilient and entrepreneurial, fueled by patriotism, civic activism, and a surge of growth industries from construction to information technology. The other is suspicious and conspiratorial, powered by ultra-nationalism, riven by sectarian and ethnic divides, and constrained by shortages of natural resources, governance, and leadership — not to mention militancy-friendly state policies.
These two Pakistans lead a shaky coexistence that could well grow unsustainable.
In Islamabad, a senior Pakistani official told me that there is only one “force for order” in the world that has ever succeeded in defeating the “forces for disorder.” Pakistan, he proclaimed, is that victorious force.
For Pakistan to truly vanquish the “forces for disorder,” it will need to eliminate its enabling environment for extremism. Unfortunately, Pakistan is unlikely to make major inroads against its radicalized society anytime soon. The extent of the challenge has become crystal clear in recent weeks. On Feb. 29, Pakistan hanged Mumtaz Qadri, a religious extremist who killed Punjab province governor Salman Taseer in 2011 because of Taseer’s support for religious minorities. Qadri’s funeral on March 1 attracted thousands — maybe even 100,000, according to one estimate. The state’s decision to render the ultimate punishment to a prisoner revered by radicalized elements of society was an encouraging sign. But the large turnout for his funeral was a sobering reminder of the continued challenges ahead.
When it comes to expunging extremism, Pakistan seems to be experiencing a demoralizing one-step-forward, one-step-back dynamic.
Meanwhile, in Islamabad, residents wanted to talk about Abdul Aziz, a hard-line cleric who infamously refused to condemn the perpetrators of the Peshawar school massacre. Despite a rigorous civil society pressure campaign, the state has done little to sanction Aziz, and people I spoke to suggested this was driven by fear more than calculated strategy. If he were arrested for an extended period, officials said, the thousands of students in the religious seminaries he runs in Islamabad could rampage across the city, just as they did in 2007, resulting in a bloody state crackdown on Aziz’s Red Mosque that helped spawn the official creation of the Pakistani Taliban.
In effect, for Pakistan to capitalize on its recent progress — from urban growth and counterterrorism victories to the growing achievements of its young people — then the state must undertake a flurry of ambitious policy interventions. These necessary correctives range from tackling the country’s education and health crises and creating more jobs, to developing counter-narratives that combat extremist ideologies pervading society, not to mention ending state support for any and all militant groups. Even if, as some suggest, the state is finally mustering the will to act, meaningful results will take much time to materialize.