Poverty Fuels Extremism

Gulf News, August 2, 2007

Once again, extremist Islamist radicals in Pakistan have exposed the inadequacies of the Pakistani state.

Notwithstanding the state’s show of strength, just a few days ago at Islamabad’s Lal Masjid (Red Mosque), the radicals had the upper hand when the mosque reopened after repairs.

Supporters of the detained cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz took over the mosque again and rioted violently. The radical extremists showed such strength in Islamabad so soon after the much publicised and high casualty military operation of a few days ago. One can only imagine their capability in the remote mountainous parts of Balochistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which everyone knows as extremist strongholds. If the events in Islamabad were not enough to highlight the dire straits that Pakistan finds itself, the latest US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) pointed out the absolute failure of Pakistan’s strategy in the war against terrorism. It noted that Al Qaida has reorganised itself from safe havens in Pakistan.

The NIE could well be wrong, as US intelligence has sometimes proven to be, but its release has created the spectre of direct military strikes against alleged Al Qaida safe havens on Pakistani soil.

The challenge of terrorists within the country and the threat of a superpower ally using military force on Pakistani soil because it distrusts Pakistan’s own capabilities should have served as a wake up call for Pakistan’s leadership. Instead, General Pervez Musharraf is still dragging his feet over sharing power and allowing civilians with a popular power base to help him (and Pakistan) out of its tough spot.


Several politicians and political commentators, too, are proving their inability to overcome their prejudice (for example the dislike some have for the Bhutto family) in favour of a constitutional-institutional arrangement that allows elected civilians to run the country again without confrontation with the country’s army.

As for the army, its leadership’s vision also remains limited to conventional balance of power concepts.

Pakistan’s elite appears oblivious to the country’s slow hemorrhaging.

Government economists cite increasing mobile phone use and expanding sales of motorcycles and cars as signs of progress and speak of the privatisation programme being a regional success.

Pakistan’s elite now drives around in Porsches, more of which have been sold in the city of Lahore alone than the car’s manufacturer had envisaged for the entire country. The pace of construction for new country clubs, golf clubs and luxury hotels also reflects growing prosperity of a select few.

Pakistan reveals multiple realities and the temptation to let optimism prevail is great. But, in essence, Pakistan has a high level of dysfunction and unpredictability.

A former Pakistani finance minister and World Bank economist recently told a roundtable on Pakistan in Washington DC that in most countries 6-8 per cent economic growth should translate into reduction in poverty by 10 per cent. He said that trickle down does not seem to be working in Pakistan as 6-8 per cent growth rates have not reduced poverty at the rate of the global average.

Pakistan’s growth is not creating jobs and is not helping alleviate poverty at a rapid pace. He estimated that 65 million Pakistanis live in absolute poverty while another 65 million live in poverty. Only 30 million Pakistanis are well-to-do.

The well-to-do often ignore the rage and anger brewing among the poor, who will be particularly vulnerable to extremist ideologies if political inclusion does not replace the current system of oligarchic rule.

Nothing short of a complete overhaul of the state structure under elected democratic leadership, based on rule of law and well-defined roles for all institutions, will bring Pakistan from the brink where it currently finds itself.