05 October 2007 - 07 October 2007

The prospects for Pakistan and its neighbourhood

Chair: Sir Hilary Synnott KCMG

Ditchley excelled itself for topicality in holding a conference, scheduled eighteen months previously, on the prospects for Pakistan which turned out to coincide with the Presidential election.  We conducted a close examination of the internal, regional and global factors affecting the country, realising that we were often raising more questions than answers, with linkages between the three areas that could not possibly be teased out over a weekend.  But the conference, for all the variety of views amongst the participants, did not duck prediction entirely.  Problems abounded;  improvements would not come easily;  but there were factors for optimism as well as pessimism. 

On the domestic front, most participants agreed that a transition was taking place, but that it was unlikely to amount to a transformation.  Military rule under President General Musharraf had been popular at the beginning, since the politicians had lost credibility, but that popularity had faded in the last two years.  What would it now mean if the General took off his uniform?  It was contended that the Pakistani military did not really have an appetite for staying in politics and power.  Yet a military withdrawal from politics had to be matched by progress by the political parties in gaining popular confidence.  This proposition was going to be tested over the next few months, not least in the parliamentary elections.  In the meantime, both headlines and political speculation would revolve around the personality of President Musharraf himself, until and unless other leading politicians took over at least a share of the limelight.  No-one seemed to be arguing that either Benazir Bhutto or any other political leader would be convincing enough to transform the scene. 

This relative pessimism was also reflected in comments about the declining voter turnout in Pakistan, the probable exclusion of Nawaz Sharif from the elections, the continuing involvement of the military and, perhaps most important in the longer term, the absence of strong enough civilian institutions for a functioning democracy, including an independent election commission and a fully autonomous supreme court, to flourish.  Other voices pointed out that Pakistan needed time to establish sounder democratic foundations.  The appetite for democracy was there, even if the political parties performed poorly against democratic principles.  The current scenario was the first time that Pakistan had seen a term of elected parliament completed under the constitution, with the prospect of a change occurring through a vote.  The political system was by and large inclusive, civil society was growing in strength and the institutions were gathering popular respect.  If economic growth could be sustained and social and economic gaps could, even to a small extent, be reduced, there might be slow improvements.

These thoughts raised the question of violent extremism.  Even if parliamentary elections produced a government with, say, a strong PPP element, what would change in the North-West Frontier province, and the Tribal Areas?  Surely there would still be a basis for the military to play an essential role in improving governance and holding the political structure together.  To what extent might Punjab continue with its own political evolution, without being over-concerned with what happened elsewhere?  Should constitutional arrangements develop a greater capacity for provincial autonomy?  There were no easy answers to such questions, as participants recognised that the opportunities and the obstacles remained finely balanced.  Nevertheless there was a feeling in the company that there were things to work with, short of any attempt to change the constitution. 

Extremism certainly worried the company.  Some felt that the amount of popular support for it, or at least condonement of it, was being underplayed.  The number and intensity of violent incidents in recent months could not be ignored.  There was evidence indicating that the military, or some parts of it, might be losing heart in the struggle against the unruliness of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).  The output and influence of the madrasas was growing, as were the number of inflammatory sermons from the mosques.  While these were certainly minority problems, it did not seem that effective steps were being taken to contain them.  The government looked as though it was on the defensive. 

Against this background it was good news that the economy had been performing so much better in the last two years.  Domestic demand had strengthened and a number of economic reforms had proved effective.  Investors appeared to be confident that there would be long term growth.  Was it possible for the economy to be de-coupled from political developments?  Others wondered what the real causes of economic improvement were.  To what extent was US financial support responsible, together with the re-scheduling of debt?  Exports were too heavily concentrated on the textile sector and imports, increasingly dominated by oil products, were growing.  There was certainly a good prospect that the current trends would continue for a while, but the foundations for sustained economic development could not be said to be in place.  Outside countries could help by ensuring better market access for Pakistani products, as well as with continued and reliable financial assistance, especially to the social sector.  Pakistan’s debt problem continued to loom large and its fiscal options were also severely constrained by the huge defence budget.

Participants repeatedly returned to education as perhaps the most important challenge facing Pakistan.  If the Jinnah vision of a moderate, Islamic and visionary state still appealed to the majority of Pakistanis, education had to rise as a government priority.  The size of the problem, however, was regarded as daunting, with the problems of resource wastage, political patronage and the curriculum likely to remain unresolved for some time.  The approach of the political parties to education sector reform would be a good test of their capacity to address the problems that really mattered for the future of Pakistan.  There was little evidence that anyone was yet taking a long-term view.

When the conference came to look at the region, we spent most of our time on Afghanistan but recognised that India was, for Pakistanis, the number one neighbour.  There was agreement that India-Pakistan relations had been moving in a positive direction, but major breakthroughs, for instance on Kashmir, were unlikely in the short term.  Confidence-building should nevertheless be continued, perhaps helped by growing frustration in public opinion on both sides over the levels of military expenditure.  Some participants were attracted by the idea of an early resolution of the Kashmir issue because the prospect otherwise was one of stalemate and because a deal might release energy and opportunities for addressing other regional problems.  Others saw little prospect of this in practice, because neither government would wish to risk public anger in their relatively weak positions at present.  It was probably better to let peace establish itself by habit over a five to ten year period.  This gradual process would be helped if the Kashmiri people themselves could be listened to more attentively.

On Afghanistan, the conference recognised that failure to produce stability there would affect the whole region.  The only effective policy for Pakistan was one that went with the grain of Pakistan’s security perceptions, but it was difficult to see clarity in Pakistani strategic objectives.  Islamabad needed to decide what kind of a relationship it wanted with religious extremists.  Moreover, the increasing trend of anti-Americanism in Pakistan made it difficult to align Pakistan’s and NATO’s security interests in Afghanistan.  The mainstream political parties seemed to be in agreement that Al Qaeda-type extremism had to be snuffed out, but there was no consensus in practice on how this should be done.  Benazir Bhutto had been brave to raise the question of cross-border pursuit, given Pakistan’s sensitivity on questions of sovereignty.  She was probably right that the writ of central government must prevail on its own territory, but it was difficult to see how the government could regain the initiative.  Acting too firmly or too hastily risked stimulating an insurgency in NWFP for a long time to come. 

As for western countries active in Afghanistan, it was important for them to demonstrate to Pakistan that success in Afghanistan served the interests of the Pakistani people.  A catalyst was needed to bring Afghanistan and Pakistan closer together, something which Presidents Karzai and Musharraf had both said they would like, but outside help was going to be needed to make it happen.  NATO’s, and particularly the US’s, emphasis on security issues might need to be qualified.  In the view of most participants, defence, development and diplomacy had to be applied in equal parts.  Pakistan, for its part, needed to be less ambivalent about the Taliban, against whom there was probably scope to do more than at present.  Some participants believed that the army would be prepared to take firmer action if the political direction was clearer.  As for the United States, there was a reasonable reconstruction programme alongside the military effort, but it was not being promoted at the strategic level, nor being presented positively enough.  In particular, the education sector in Afghanistan needed to be given much greater attention.  The next generation was as important as the current one, needing not just better and more consistent schooling but also jobs to go to afterwards.  Infrastructure needed to be built and light industry developed.  These were more important priorities than the promotion of democracy, which would not be an answer to the country’s problems if society was not ready for it.

The relevance of both China and Iran to the regional picture was clear, though the conference did not spend time on the detail.  If China was beginning to play a more helpful role on counter-terrorism, it might be worth expanding their engagement in this area.  Since China was bound to take its growing relationship with India into account in looking at Pakistan, perhaps it could develop a role in improving India-Pakistan relations.  As for Iran, which was currently helping in some areas in Afghanistan but causing problems in others, engagement was probably preferable to a cold shoulder.  Elsewhere Iran’s impact was likely to be most felt in the energy sector, with the majority of participants believing that the development of an Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, in spite of current American objections, would bring dividends. 

In short, greater engagement all round should be pursued across the region.  A more systematic approach to Pakistan-Afghanistan cooperation, for instance through a joint policy action group, was recommended.  Pakistani businesses should be plugged more fully into the Afghan reconstruction market.  China, and possibly also Saudi Arabia, should be encouraged to provide development assistance to the Tribal Areas.  NATO and Pakistan should develop a joint strategy on the border areas.  Even the Indians might have a role to play in helping to stabilise Afghanistan, so long as they approached this in a way which did not increase Indian-Pakistani regional rivalry.  The governments themselves were thought unlikely to pursue such ideas without outside help:  hence the preference expressed in this discussion for more intensive outside diplomacy, including the possible appointment of a high level facilitator.  The UN was regarded as being in too weak a position to take the initiative, which would have to come from leading powers involved in the region.  If this was accompanied by support for the idea of regional economic interdependence, including on energy though not confined to it, this might help.

Looking wider still, most participants agreed that Pakistan could not be thought of as a global power.  Its interests were essentially regional and Pakistan itself did not at present aspire to more than that.  Yet Pakistan had a unique geostrategic location, with the potential to act as a bridge between Central Asia and South Asia as well as between the Gulf and India/China.  In economic, energy and even cultural terms, the impact of events in Pakistan could reach a long way.  Yet Pakistan had not yet developed the internal strengths to control its environment or create a consistent impact.  Suspicions about the potential for violent extremism to spread within and from Pakistan were also a negative factor.

American policy was regarded as being particularly relevant in this global view.  Participants wondered whether the US had got the balance of its priorities right.  The emphasis on counter-terrorism and on reducing the risks of outright conflict in the region seemed to take up a lot more energy than addressing the domestic situation in Pakistan, including the gradual development of sounder institutions and encouragement of the economy.  If policy was to pay attention to the longer term, this third area should not be left so far behind the other two, because progress in the third served the interests of the first two.  Perhaps the United States was also inclined to focus too sharply on the personality of President Musharraf himself.  Yet American support for Pakistan had been generous and consistent over recent years and the relationship ought to continue to be a good one, provided the more negative perceptions of the US in Pakistani public opinion did not become too dominant.  All this was worth a deeper debate in Washington, not least on the question of conditionality for American military aid, on which Congress was still insisting.

The other external aspect we discussed in some detail was the Pakistani diaspora.  Some participants played down their relevance, but others thought that their influence would carry a long-term effect.  The benefits of their financial remittances alone were not to be sniffed at.  Perhaps the United Kingdom was the only country in which the impact of the Pakistani community, not least of Pakistani votes in certain constituencies, tended to affect the government’s policy.  But in the end most participants agreed that the diaspora were neither close enough to events on the ground in Pakistan, nor up-to-date enough with developments in the country, to be a significant factor. 

On external influences more generally, it was pointed out that Pakistanis were, perhaps increasingly, inclined to take their own decisions in their own way.  Outside help could play an important role in economic and particularly social development (where the EU, which rarely achieved a mention in this conference, was regarded as playing a lamentable role).  But it was too easy for outsiders to cause offence with the manner of their approach and advice, which had political costs.  The substance, too had to be carefully considered, as over the question of conditionality.  Yet the outside world had important political, security and other interests in Pakistan and its future course and no-one was inclined to suggest that external involvement should be any less intense. 

The conference did not try to develop any solid conclusions from this interesting debate.  Pakistan affected so many different strands of global interaction that the complexity of all the linkages made prediction difficult.  There was no doubting the sympathy of this gathering of experts for Pakistan and its future, which generated an inclination to respect the realities on the ground and to hope for a gradual evolution towards a better-formed democracy.  If the military could remain engaged in policies, but less so in politics, that would seem to meet most participants’ preferences.  But the outcome of the political process was almost certainly bound to be untidy.  The broad objective for outsiders ought to remain:  to help promote a transition from military to civilian rule; to help the central government deal with extremism, with long-term as well as short-term considerations applying;  to promote the development of institutions for a stable democracy in the further future;  and to try to sustain the improvement in Pakistan’s economy.  While no-one underestimated the range and depth of problems facing the country, we ended with the feeling that there would be enough progress in some areas, and enough cohesion in society as a whole, for Pakistan to avoid any ultimate disasters.

The conference was fortunate in having around the table such a broad range of expertise on the country, both Pakistani and foreign, and in having an experienced chairman to steer them with discipline and good sense.  We all felt we could observe the developments of the next few months with a much greater understanding of the factors at play.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chairman:  Sir Hilary Synnott KCMG
Consulting Senior Fellow, International Institute of Strategic Studies (2004-).  Formerly:  CPA Regional Coordinator for Southern Iraq (2003-04);  HM Diplomatic Service (1973-2003);  High Commissioner, Pakistan (2000-2003);  Director, South and South East Asia, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (1996-98);  Deputy High Commissioner, New Delhi (1993-96);  Royal Navy, HM Submarines (1962-73).

Mr Matthew Neuhaus

Australian Diplomatic Service (1982-);  Director, Political Affairs Division, The Commonwealth Secretariat, London.   Formerly:  Senior Adviser, International Division, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Australia (2001-02).

Mr Larry Brooks

Counsellor, Canadian High Commission, London.
HE Mr David Collins
High Commissioner of Canada to Pakistan (2005-).  Formerly:  Inspector General, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Ottawa (2003-05);  Director, Defence Partnership and Cooperation, NATO, Brussels (2001-03).
Dr J Douglas Goold
President and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian Institute of International Affairs, Toronto.  Formerly:  Editor, The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business and Report on Business Magazine.  Author.
Mr Jim Judd
Director, Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Ottawa (2004-).  Formerly:  Secretary of the Treasury Board;  Deputy Minister of National Defence.
Brigadier-General Charles Sullivan
Director General of Capability Development, National Defence Headquarters, Ottawa (2006-).  Formerly:  Commander, 4 Wing and Canadian Force’s Base Cold Lake, Alberta (2003-05).

Ms Jasmine Zerinini

Chargée de Mission, Affaires Internationales et Stratégiques, Secrétariat Général de la Défense Nationale, Paris.

Ms Vaiju Naravane

European Correspondent, The Hindu.

Professor W Pal Sidhu

Director, New Issues in Security Course, Geneva Centre for Security Policy.  Formerly:  Senior Associate, International Peace Academy;  Consultant, United Nations Panel of Governmental experts on Missiles (2001-2002).

Lt Gen (retd) Asad Durrani

Formerly:  Ambassador of Pakistan to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (2000-02);  Ambassador to Germany (1994-97);  Army Postings included:  Commandant National Defence College;  Director-General, Military Intelligence and Inter Services Intelligence.
Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy
Professor of Nuclear Physics, Political Analyst, Anti-Nuclear Activist, Quaid-e-Azam University, Pakistan;  Visiting Professor:  MIT, Carnegie Mellon University, University of Maryland, Stanford Linear Accelerator.  Author and Broadcaster.
Mr Shaharyar Khan
Formerly:  Ambassador of Pakistan to France (1999-2001);  Chairman, Committee on Foreign Service Reforms, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1997-99);  UN Secretary General’s Special Representative to Rwanda (1994-96);  Foreign Secretary (1990-94).
HE Dr Maleeha Lodhi
High Commissioner for the Islamic Republic of Pakistan to the UK, London (2003-).  Formerly:  Ambassador of Pakistan to the USA (1999-2002) and (1994-97);  Editor, The News, Islamabad (1997-99 and 1990-93);  Editor, The Muslim, Islamabad (1987-90).
Ms Kamila Shamsie
Novelist and Columnist.
Mr Shahzad Sharjeel
Senior External Affairs Officer, The World Bank, Islamabad.  Formerly:  Assistant Editor, Daily Dawn, Pakistan’s largest circulating English daily newspaper.

Professor Alexandra Safronova

Head, Faculty of History, Institute of Asian and African Studies, Moscow State University;  Professor, Department of South Asian History, Institute of Asian and African Studies, Moscow State University.

Mr Michael Crawford

HM Diplomatic Service (1981-);  Counsellor, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London (2001-).
Mr Alexander Evans
HM Diplomatic Service (2003-);  First Secretary, British High Commission, Islamabad and Gwilym Gibbon Fellow, Nuffield College, Oxford.  Formerly:  First Secretary, British High Commission, New Delhi (2005-).
Baroness Falkner of Margravine
Life Peer, Liberal Democrat (2004-).  Formerly:  Fellow, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University;  Member, Prime Minister’s Taskforce on Muslim Extremism.
Mr Nik Gowing
Main Presenter, BBC World TV (1996-).  Formerly:  Channel 4 News:  Diplomatic Editor, Channel 4 News (1989-96);  Diplomatic Correspondent (1987-89).  A Governor, the Ditchley Foundation.
Professor Shaun Gregory
Director, Pakistan Security Research Unit, University of Bradford (2007-).  Formerly:  Head of Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford (2002-07).
Mr Rowan Laxton
HM Diplomatic Service (1993-);  Deputy Head, South Asia Group, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London (2007-).  Formerly:  Deputy Head of Mission, Kabul (2001-03);  Head of Chancery, Islamabad (1997-2000).
Mrs Mariot Leslie
HM Diplomatic Service (1977-);  Director General Defence and Intelligence, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London (2007-).
Dr Farhan Nizami
Director, Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, Oxford, The Prince of Wales Fellow, Magdalen College, Oxford.
Lieutenant General Sir David Richards KCB CBE DSO
Commander, Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (2005-).  Formerly:  Commander, NATO International Security and Assistance Force, Afghanistan (2006-07);  Assistant Chief of the General Staff, Ministry of Defence, London (2002-05).
Ms Victoria Schofield
Author;  Commentator, BBC News 24.
Mr Philip Stephens
Associate Editor and Senior Commentator, Financial Times.  Formerly:  Financial Times:  Economics Editor, Political Editor and Editor, UK Edition;  Correspondent, Reuters, London and Brussels.  Author.  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Ms Sheelagh Stewart
Deputy Director (Operations), South Asia Strategy and Operations, Department for International Development, London (2007-).  Formerly:  Head of Governance and Conflict, Department for International Development, London (2004-07).
Mr Mark Urban
Diplomatic Editor, BBC Newsnight.
Mr Tim Willasey-Wilsey
HM Diplomatic Service (1981-);  Advisor on Asia, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London (2002-).  Formerly:  Counsellor, UN Affairs, Geneva (1999-2002);  Counsellor, Islamabad (1993 96).

Ms Pryanjali Malik

DPhil Candidate, Merton College, Oxford (2003-).  Formerly:  International Institute for Strategic Studies (2001-03);  MPhil, International Relations, Balliol College, Oxford (1999-2001).

Dr Sarmila Bose

Director, The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford.
Dr Matthew Nelson
Lecturer, Department of Politics and International Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.
The Hon James Rubin
World Affairs Commentator, Sky News.  Formerly:  Assistant Secretary of State, US State Department, Washington DC.
Dr Lawrence Saez
Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics and International Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.  Formerly:  Visiting Fellow, Asia Research Centre, The London School of Economics.

Mr Craig Cohen

Deputy Chief of Staff and Fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington.
Professor Stephen Cohen
Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, The Brookings Institution, Washington (1998-).  Formerly:  Professor Political Science and History, University of Illinois;  Member, Policy Planning Staff, US Department of State (1985-87).
Ms Lisa Curtis
Senior Research Fellow, South Asia, The Heritage Foundation (2006-).  Formerly:  Lead Expert on South Asia to the Chairman of the Senate  Foreign Relations Committee (2003-06).
Mr Jim Hoagland
Associate Editor and Chief Foreign Correspondent, The Washington Post.
Ambassador Teresita C Schaffer
Director, South Asia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington (1998-).  Formerly:  Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia (1989-92).