New Internationalist


March 2006

Perhaps the most famous anecdote in Pakistan is this: while most countries have an army, in Pakistan the army has a country. Almost 60 years after its creation from the dying embers of British colonialism as a haven for the Muslims of the subcontinent – and a few months after the devastating earthquake in Kashmir that garnered worldwide sympathy – Pakistan’s most prominent feature is the monopoly of the army over state affairs and, indeed, over much of public life.

It would be easy to suggest that the army’s domination is essentially a legacy of British rule, yet neighbouring India has never once been subject to military rule. More accurately, the Pakistani state has carefully bred a tale of imminent takeover by India to justify inordinate expenditures on the army, while the institution itself has been celebrated as Pakistan’s saviour. On the other hand, politicians have been slandered from the very start; a segment of the intelligentsia even propagates the view that Pakistan’s genius is not suited to democracy.

In more recent times the army has become the most powerful corporate entity in the land, with a stake in a host of sectors ranging from road construction and real estate to aviation and agriculture. It is unofficially estimated that the army accounts for up to 30 per cent of national output. It has also become the country’s largest landowner, capturing the most valuable agricultural and residential lands. For the most part the propertied classes, including the landed élite and industrial magnates, remain content with a junior role in the army-led dispensation, but amongst ordinary people resentment has increased markedly in recent times, eroding the army’s mythical role as the nation’s saviour.

Chris Stowers / Panos /
Chris Stowers / Panos /

Ethnic tensions have run high since the country’s creation, with the army and most of the civilian bureaucracy hailing from the Punjab and migrant Urdu-speakers; ethnicity remains the primary political idiom. The state cultivated militant Islamic groups to wage covert war in Afghanistan in the 1980s and in the disputed province of Kashmir since, but the present military government claims to have clamped down upon its own protégés. Indeed Pakistan has been celebrated by the US and its allies as a frontline state in the War on Terror, much as it was during the Afghan War in the 1980s. The army’s domination of the country is in no small measure attributable to the support of the US at every critical juncture of the Cold War and, more recently, after 11 September 2001. Too much is at stake for this to be seriously endangered even when US missiles hit a Pakistani village as they did in January.

Despite the claims, little has changed. The religious Right even runs the North Western Frontier provincial government, while the Government’s promises to repeal oppressive laws against religious minorities and women have proved to be hollow. Under the guise of devolving power, the Government has resorted to the age-old practice of patronizing local élites in the interest of maintaining power, thereby reinforcing a host of regressive social practices that discriminate against workers, women, minorities and other traditionally vulnerable groups.

The Government also claims that it has rescued a sinking economy from impending collapse, and the international financial institutions (IFIs) back up this claim with stellar macroeconomic figures. However, much of the improvement is premised on huge inflows of aid, and standard IFI-backed adjustment policies have worsened the situation of ordinary Pakistanis. Inflation and unemployment are rife, while agriculture – the mainstay of 70 per cent of the population – continues to be subject to international market pressures and the tyranny of global agreements such as the WTO.

So for most Pakistanis it is more of the same. The army has succeeded in co-opting all mainstream political forces. Those who retain their principled opposition to the status quo are still trying to generate the broad-based support necessary to challenge it.

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar
Pakistan Fact File
Leader General Pervez Musharraf, since a coup d’état in October 1999, self-appointed President since June 2001, confirmed in a dubious referendum in 2002.
Economy GNI per capita $600 (India $620, Britain $33,940). Isolated following the military coup in 1999, sanctions were lifted in 2001 when Pakistan became a valuable US ally in the War on Terror. It is now firmly in the World Bank/IMF fold – the Bank approved a $500-million loan to help ‘restructure’ the economy in June 2002.
Monetary unit Rupee
Main exports Textiles, rice, leather, sports goods.
People 154.8 million. People per square kilometre 194 (UK 245).
Health Infant mortality 80 per 1,000 live births (India 62, Britain 5). Health has just 1% of government spending, compared to the 18% spent on the military.
Environment Mega water projects have caused immense ecological damage, and the sea has intruded 200 km inland from the coastal city of Karachi. Air and noise pollution are increasing exponentially and there are fears about waste from nuclear power plants.
Culture Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashtun, Baluchi and others. Punjab province has 56% of the population, Sindh 23%, the predominantly Pashtun North Western Frontier Province 23% and Baluchistan 5%. There are also millions of Afghan refugees and around a million illegal immigrants.
Religion Islam is followed by 97%, with small Christian and Hindu minorities.
Language Urdu (official), plus many local languages.
Sources World Guide; State of the World’s Children 2006;
Last profiled link September 1995
Pakistan ratings in detail
Income distribution
The Government’s commitment to neo-liberalism has pushed poverty to as high as 45%. Rises in per capita income belie the massive concentration of wealth at the top.
Previously reviewed
49% – but the gap between men (62%) and women (35%) is massive. Education receives only 2% of government expenditure.
Previously reviewed
Life expectancy
63 years (India 64, Britain 79).
Previously reviewed
Position of women
33% reservation of seats in local government elections yet women remain largely excluded from public life. Discriminatory laws remain in force.
Previously reviewed
Serious political dissent is not tolerated. However, the deregulation of the electronic press has opened up space for opposing viewpoints.
Previously reviewed
Sexual minorities
Homosexuality is illegal and the death penalty applies under sharia law. It is, however, far from uncommon.
NI Assessment (Politics)
The Government is widely seen to be subservient to the US, its policies more protective of US geopolitical interests than its own people’s needs. It has manipulated the political process, holding a seriously flawed presidential referendum and severely compromised parliamentary elections. The rule of law continues to be undermined and political victimization and human rights violations are commonplace.
Previously reviewed

This column was published in the March 2006 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

Never miss another story! Get our FREE fortnightly eNews

Comments on Pakistan

Leave your comment


  • Maximum characters allowed: 5000
  • Simple HTML allowed: bold, italic, and links

Registration is quick and easy. Plus you won’t have to re-type the blurry words to comment!
Register | Login

...And all is quiet.

Subscribe to Comments for this articleArticle Comment Feed RSS 2.0

Guidelines: Please be respectful of others when posting your reply.

Country ratings (details)
Income distribution1
Previously reviewed1
Previously reviewed1
Life expectancy3
Previously reviewed3
Position of women1
Previously reviewed1
Previously reviewed2
Sexual minorities1
NI Assessment (Politics)2
Previously reviewed2

Get our free fortnightly eNews


Videos from visionOntv’s globalviews channel.

Related articles

Recently in Country Profile

All Country Profile

Popular tags

All tags

New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

If you would like to know something about what's actually going on, rather than what people would like you to think was going on, then read the New Internationalist.

– Emma Thompson –

A subscription to suit you

Save money with a digital subscription. Give a gift subscription that will last all year. Or get yourself a free trial to New Internationalist. See our choice of offers.