The Islamic Republic of Pakistan has the second largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia. It is one of the two states created after the 1947 separation of British India into Pakistan and predominantly Hindu India. Since then, Pakistan and India have had a troubled relationship punctuated by a number of conventional wars and skirmishes over the past six decades and countless other disputes, particularly with respect to Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan’s support for Islamist militancy in India. A strategically key crossroad that borders Afghanistan, China, India, and Iran, Pakistan has for much of its existence been of interest to the international community. That interest peaked after the September 11, 2001, attacks when it pledged total support for the US ‘War On Terror’ and promised to eradicate terrorist sanctuaries within its borders. Pakistan remains an impoverished and underdeveloped country which for decades has suffered domestic and regional unrest, low levels of foreign investment and declining trade, particularly with respect to exports of manufactured goods.
Although many issues have brought Pakistan and India to loggerheads, the disputed Kashmir territory is the single greatest cause of friction. Both countries claim territorial rights over Kashmir and have fought two conventional wars, in 1947-48 and 1965, over the Himalayan region. A third war in 1971 resulted in East Pakistan becoming the separate nation of Bangladesh. Tensions decreased somewhat in the early 2000s following increased dialogue and confidence-building measures between the two states. An improvement in India-Pakistan relations came to an abrupt halt, however, with the Mumbai attacks of November 2008 that were allegedly carried out by Pakistan-based militants. Kashmir continues to be a cause of tension – with around a million Pakistani and Indian troops stationed there, it is the most militarized region in the world. Rivalry between Pakistan and India has also been seen in their nuclear weapons advancement policies. In response to Indian nuclear weapons testing, Pakistan conducted its own nuclear tests in 1998 to much criticism and sanction from the international community.
Since September 2001, Pakistan has provided assistance to the US in the war on terror by capturing more than 600 al-Qaida members and their allies. The United States has in return increased its economic assistance to Pakistan, providing debt relief and support for education reform, and the country has emerged from the international isolation that followed its nuclear weapons tests. Yet, Pakistan’s economy and social infrastructure remains fragile, in part due to internal political instability. Popular political leader, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in late 2007 and the country’s former president Pervez Musharraf resigned in August 2008. This led to the election of Bhutto’s husband Asif Zardari as President by parliamentary vote one month later. Pakistan’s civilian and military authorities continue to struggle to control Islamist militants located on the shared border with Afghanistan or their clandestine networks in the major cities of Karachi and Quetta.
The Pakistani government also faces a deteriorating economy. High budgetary deficits, and inflation, and depleted foreign exchange reserves, led it to accept an International Monetary Fund Standby Arrangement in November 2008. Pakistan has extensive energy resources, including coal, moderate amounts of natural gas reserves and large hydropower potential. However, exploitation of energy resources has been slow due to a shortage of capital and infrastructure, and domestic and international political constrictions. The government has announced that privatization in the oil and gas sector is a priority. Cotton textile production and apparel manufacturing are Pakistan’s largest industries, accounting for about 51 per cent of its total exports. Other major industries include food processing, beverages, construction materials, clothing, and paper products.
Currently, only 55 per cent of adults in Pakistan are literate and the average life expectancy is about 64 years, 167th compared to the world. Low levels of spending in the social services and high population growth have contributed to persistent poverty and unequal income distribution. The nation ranks 139 out of 179 countries on the Human Development Index conducted by the UNDP (2008). Pakistan’s extreme poverty and underdevelopment continue to be key concerns, and will bring challenges in the future.
By: Mustafa Qadri, Pakistan correspondent