Why is the Pakistani government always unstable

Domestic conflicts

Thorsten Wojczewski

Thorsten Wojczewski has a doctorate in political science and works as a research fellow at the India Institute at King’s College London. His research focus is India / South Asia.

With the impeachment of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on corruption allegations in June 2017, Pakistan's democratic consolidation took another setback. Meanwhile, two major offensives against insurgents and terrorists were able to bring about a brief decrease in violence in the country.

Pakistani rescue troops arrive at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, which was bombed on 08/20/2008. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)

Current situation

In a controversial ruling in June 2017, the Pakistani Supreme Court upheld the corruption allegations against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and initiated an impeachment. While some opposition parties and political observers celebrate the verdict as a victory against rampant corruption in the country, others see the verdict as yet another setback for the democratization process and the powerful military as the puller. After his election victory in May 2013, Sharif tried to roll back the dominance of the military in the Pakistani state, introduce economic reforms and improve relations with arch-rival India - and thus turned the military against him.

It would not be the first time in Pakistan's history that the military has brought down a civilian government with the active support of opposition politicians. The fact that the Supreme Court did not allow the Prime Minister to go to trial, but only upheld the results of a committee of inquiry, one-third of which was military, fuel suspicions of an indirect coup d'état.

The action plan against terrorism adopted in 2014 and a major (para-) military offensive against extremists in Waziristan and other parts of the country have meanwhile contributed to a short-term, but unsustainable, improvement in Pakistan's security situation. The military campaign was directed against a number of militant groups, in particular the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan), who use the region along the border with Afghanistan as a camp and retreat. According to the military, around 3,400 terrorists had been killed and over 800 camps destroyed by the end of the offensive in April 2016. Nationwide, more than 2,000 suspects and supporters were arrested by the security authorities. As a result, the number of terrorist attacks in Pakistan has fallen to its lowest level since 2008.

While the government and military rated the operation as a complete success and even claimed that there were no longer any terrorist networks in Pakistan, a series of serious terrorist attacks occurred right at the beginning of 2017, which not only cast doubt on the effectiveness of the campaign , but also to disclose the mostly actionist and selective anti-terrorism policies of the Pakistani security authorities. In February 2017 alone, there were more than 25 terrorist attacks with a total of almost 300 fatalities and thousands of injuries. As a result, the Pakistani security authorities launched another offensive at the end of February, which was primarily directed against the Pakistani Taliban and the Sunni Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. The increasing presence of the "Islamic State" (IS) in the provinces of Sindh and Balochistan, where there is not only religious and sectarian violence but also separatist tendencies, is also worrying.

Causes and backgrounds of the conflict

The conflicts and ongoing political instability in Pakistan are closely related to the process of nation and identity building, which has not yet been completed. They are exacerbated by the fact that the ruling elites often put their own interests above the social and political grievances of the country. The corruption allegations against Nawaz Sharif have confirmed this negative image in the Pakistani public.

Since independence, different forces have engaged in a power struggle, whereby three main lines of conflict can be distinguished:
  • the contrast between Islamic fundamentalists, who want to Islamize society and establish a state of God with Sharia, and more civil-democratic forces that are oriented towards a secular-democratic state model;
  • the conflict between the civil-democratic leadership and the military, which today has become a state within a state;
  • the gap between religious and ethnic communities and groups in relation to the identity of the Pakistani nation, which also exists between various Islamic currents and ethnically motivated separatist movements.
The situation in the distant provinces in particular poses a serious challenge to the country's political stability. The western provinces, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are centers of gravity of religiously based violence and separatist endeavors. The province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the northwest is part of the historical settlement area of ​​the Pashtuns, which was divided almost in the middle by the Afghan-Pakistani border ("Durand Line"). The Pashtun call for an independent "Pashtunistan" is also supported by the Afghan government.

The so-called tribal areas (FATA) are largely withdrawn from the political processes in Pakistan due to their inaccessible topography and their tribal social order. They are considered a refuge for insurgents and the Taliban - both from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Similar precarious conditions and a deep aversion to the government in Islamabad also exist in the largest province of Balochistan in terms of area. Demands for greater economic participation and more self-determination have been systematically suppressed in recent decades. Islamabad fears a strengthening of nationalist and separatist efforts, which could make access to the natural gas deposits there more difficult.

The province of Sindh in the south of the country with the metropolis of Karachi has repeatedly been the scene of bitter conflicts. These mostly take place between security forces and the Muslims (mohajirs) from India. The disputes are fueled by the beliefs of the Deobandis and the Ahl-i Hadith. In the course of religious radicalization, the Pakistani Taliban also formed in southern Punjab. Since 2014, IS has also been trying harder to gain a foothold in Pakistan (as well as Afghanistan and India).

Processing and solution approaches

The conflict resolution policies of the last two Pakistani governments have mostly oscillated between sporadic peace talks with militant groups and selective military operations. Both strategies have so far proven to be ineffective. Nevertheless, there have recently been tentative efforts to take the causes of the conflicts seriously and to work towards a peaceful settlement of the conflict. First steps towards further democratization and federalization of the country have been initiated. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which ruled until 2013, strengthened the provinces' self-determination and responsibility through a constitutional amendment. However, the newly created administrative structures have tended to lead to increased corruption and patronage. The successor government under Prime Minister Sharif (2013-2017) has also cautiously tried to redefine Pakistan's identity as the Islamic Republic by declaring the festivals of religious minorities to be official holidays. However, a sustained decline in violence could not be achieved

The persistently high level of violence is not least due to the failed anti-terrorist policy, which is being crushed between the power-political interests of the various actors. Sharif's impeachment, preceded by a dispute over how to deal with anti-Indian terrorist groups in Pakistan, is further evidence of this. In order to balance the power imbalance with its arch-rival India and to force a solution to the Kashmir conflict, the Pakistani army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency continue to collaborate with Islamist fundamentalists on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border in order to develop their own political, economic and political forces promote geostrategic interests.

In Kashmir, terrorist groups like Lashkar e-Taiba and Jaish-e Mohammed are waging a proxy war against India. For fear of "strategic encirclement" by India, the Pakistani secret service also supports the Taliban and the Haqqani network in Afghanistan. The strategic calculation behind this support is the concern for a stronger political and military presence of India in Afghanistan - a fear that has increased with the gradual withdrawal of the USA and NATO. The ongoing instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan should bind the USA to the region and guarantee the financial and military aid flowing to Pakistan. The Pakistani army wants to prevent a pro-Indian regime in Kabul. The Pakistani fight against terrorism therefore primarily focuses on those groups that can pose a threat to the Pakistani state and thus also to the army, while "strategically useful" terrorist networks are only fought sporadically.

Although the military campaigns launched in recent years can bring about a short-term reduction in violence, they cannot bring about a lasting solution to the conflicts in the affected areas. So far, these have always led to a worsening of the humanitarian and economic situation and to an increased influx of Islamist groups. For example, between 2014 and 2016, over a million people were displaced from their traditional homeland. Instead of addressing the causes of terrorism and extremism, such as underdevelopment and a dysfunctional state apparatus, Pakistan's anti-terrorism policy is more an expression of power-politically motivated actionism.

History of the conflict

Pakistan, the "Land of the Pure", was founded to give a home to the millions of Muslims on the Indian subcontinent. The British colonial administration laid the foundation for the conflicts with the different treatment of ethnic groups and their plans for partition. While the well-educated Hindus were disproportionately represented in government, administration and the military, Muslims were denied privileged access to education and development. In order to escape the threatening dominance of the Hindus, Muslim intellectuals pushed ahead with the establishment of an independent state. The basis was the so-called "two-nation theory", which is still a central element that creates identity today.

Under the pressure of modernization, the patriarchal and quasi-feudal structures have become an obstacle to building a modern and democratic state. Because of the ubiquitous poverty, many, especially young people, follow the promises of salvation made by religious parties and organizations. Because organizations like Jamaat-i Ulema i Pakistan (JUI) or Jamaat-i Islami (JI) are by no means responsible only for spirituality. With their network of supply facilities, mosques and schools they have created a parallel system to the Pakistani state since the 1980s under the military rule of General Zia-ul Haqs (1977-88).

The civilian governments of the 1990s under Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were unable to stop the trend towards Islamization due to internal power struggles and external problems. In order to stabilize the country threatened by disintegration, the military under Generals Ayub Khan (1958), Zia-ul Haq (1977) and Pervez Musharraf (1999) has already seized power three times for several years. Decades of martial law have permanently damaged democratic culture. However, due to persistent negative experiences with the corrupt political elite, the military is still seen today as a reliable stabilizer of the nation that is threatened in its cohesion. It is in a position to revert to power at any time.


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Analysis and contributions of the International Crisis Group on Pakistan

Information portal on South Asia

Brookings Institute web resource on Pakistan.

Broadcasts on ARTE about Pakistan