A Vicious Circle

By Adnan Syed

Pakistan is passing through a vicious negative feedback loop that is beginning to gather momentum. The vicious circle is a result of country’s inability to provide for the basic individual rights of its citizens. Combine that with a burgeoning population, and the rampant nationalist tensions within the society that have been suppressed in the name of religious identity, Pakistan is staring at a nightmarish scenario in the coming decade. Pakistan needs to realize that the existential threat is coming from the failure of its society and not due to the external influences that consume majority of the resources of our nation. Unless we start spending on providing for the four basic rights to our citizens, the chaos will just feed on itself in the years to come.

This two part writeup should be treated as a loud musing. I have stayed largely away from the religious vs. secularism debate as the immediate concern is to establish the rule of law and the secularism debate takes us away from the immediate objectives; provide for the protection of life, property and honour of each and every of the individuals. Needless to say that the demographic outlook for Pakistan, widening fault lines across the sub-nationalities and the vagueness about the role of religion in the affairs of the state is presenting a dire outlook for the state of Pakistan.



The Vicious Circle

Among many of the tragedies faced by Pakistan, grim news came out of Karachi that MQM MPA Raza Haidar was gunned down in a mosque on Monday. Mr. Haidar and his body guard received several bullets from two men. Initial reports suggest that a sectarian organization may have targeted him as part of minority cleansing that has been going on selectively in Pakistan for the past two decades.

Usually, the sequence of events in an ideal world runs something like this: Police applies full investigation based on modern forensics and sharp investigative techniques. Almost 90% of the time, suspects are identified. Cases are filed in the courts within a period of a few months. Suspects are assigned public defenders if they cannot afford it. The state picks up the best public prosecutors to present its case in front of an independent judiciary. The judicial process takes up to 2 to 3 years at most and the suspects are either found guilty or declared innocent. In case of a guilty verdict, the convicts are sentenced to the appropriate punishment. The well oiled judicial system not only makes sure that justice is meted to the guilty ones, it keeps sending out the constant deterrence message to the would-be criminals: no matter how small or big is the crime, there is a well funded and working system that is out to make sure that no one tramples on the four basic rights of the other civilians.

This process repeats itself every time, with no regard to the status of the aggrieved or the culpable individual. The message is reinforced every time the society works to enforce the justice. Do a crime and you will do your time. Deterrence is real and will be enforced.

Now that was the ideal world: In the real world on the streets of Karachi or Lahore, personal killings may go unsolved for years. Suspects even when identified are likely to be tortured and forced to confess to a crime they may or may not have committed. Underfunded police system and the public prosecutors will find themselves backlogged in an equally ineffective judicial system where the cases may linger for a decade or more.

With no deterrence of any sorts, the vicious circle begins to feed itself. A society that fails to protect its citizens finds itself under attack from within. As the law fails to give the basic facilities to its society members, segments of population start exploiting the other segments due to the uneven application of the law. The rot starts spreading through the layers of the society as the abuse spreads across the layers of the society. From tax evasion to targeted killings, the aggressors take heart in the fact that chances of them getting caught and punished are relatively low. Another proximity effect kicks in this atmosphere; if my neighbour can do it and get away with it, why can’t I. The negative feedback loop is now rampaging through in the society, feeding upon itself as the society settles in a permanent state of chaos and anarchy.

Notice while good consciousness resides inside many of the individuals, it has never been enough to stabilize a society. Majority of Pakistanis are decent individuals who deeply care about their families and their neighbours. Yet at 1% of the population paying taxes, it is clear that the same decent-towards-their-families individuals are the adept tax evaders as well. Look around yourself and find the reasonable and pious individuals having to accept or give bribes on a daily basis, and consider it completely normal. Honour killings, destruction of public property is done by ordinary people who are usually the mild well mannered people in their daily lives. The human psychology is rather segmented and arbitrary; unless it is compelled by the law to follow the dictum, it will find ways to twist the laws for its own self interest.


Is Pakistan a Special Case of a Third World Country?

In its big cities, towns and villages, Pakistan is like just another third world country. It is a country governed on an ad-hoc basis, where institutions have been slow to develop, rule of law is patchy at best, and populations’ penchant for quick fixes get exploited by the military as it steps into the mix every one and a half decade; only to leave things even worse. Like clockwork, army rule is welcomed with garlands and distribution of sweets on the streets. Honeymoon generally lasts two to three years as the black-and-white world view of the military leaders quickly finds itself wanting in a complicated gray-ish-world. Disenchantment sets in when “quick-fixes” lead to further long term problems. Democracy is welcomed again, and later despised due to its largely ineffectual leaders who are hell bent upon furthering their own rules. But memories are short, and Pakistan repeats its sorry loop yet again and again every few years.

At 63, Pakistan is still a very young nation. Yet an added complication in Pakistan’s mix is the confessional nature of the state. This vague aspect is exploited by the right wing parties and their sympathizers to impose the Islamic ideology on the country that for most intent and purposes came into being based on a Muslim nationalism cause. The confusion is fully exploited by various political and military leaders to further their rules by a mere few years. However the cost is exorbitant for the country. This confessional state approach leads to suppression of ethnic and regional identities. In turn, society is further destabilized as various groups get into conflict with each other trying to protect their nationalist rights that are trampled under the name of Islam and a largely federated Pakistan.

The result of the confessional nature of the state (and its resultant fixation with India) is that Pakistan has never been able to properly look inward and assess the importance of a stable society governed by the laws. While Pakistan’s geopolitical proximity has never been its friend, Pakistan has constantly spent more on its defence forces (almost useless for the rule of law within a society) than on its combined law enforcement, healthcare and educational infrastructure. This fixation is rather a sad indictment of the country’s misjudged priorities: Almost all of its major debacles (1971 separation, religious violence) were a result of disenchantment of a major segment of the society. This disenchantment resulted from the deprivation of the basic rights that the state of Pakistan failed to provide.

And yet, the intelligentsia remains paranoid of the external forces while the society crumbles from within.

Rather worryingly it doesn’t get any better going forward. Another ticking time bomb that awaits Pakistan is its exploding population. The present population at 160 million is set to grow almost three fold to 450 million within the next 40 years. This staggering rate of growth will bring with it further frictions. If Pakistan is unable to stabilize the present fissures developing within its population, it will soon be wrestling with three times the problems. An economy unable to provide for the disillusioned youth will set itself up for further religious and political extremism. The mistrust and hatred within the current generation will transfer and compound into the next generations. From the generation that is now being referred to as Zia’s children, we have a glimpse of havoc a hate filled ideology can instil inside a new generation. The new generation just remembers the misgivings; all else is forgotten in the passing of the generational baton.

It is all a big mess. Pakistan did not get there overnight. It will not exit it any day soon as well. But it is not the outcomes that Pakistan needs to focus on. It is the building blocks of a stable society that need attention, now.

(Continued – Tomorrow: We Need Democracy and We Still Need a Top Down Approach)


Filed under Citizens, Constitution, human rights, Identity, Islam, Islamabad, musings, Pak Tea House, Pakistan, Rights, state

19 responses to “A Vicious Circle

  1. shiv

    @ Adnan Syed
    Cases are filed in the courts within a period of a few months. Suspects are assigned public defenders if they cannot afford it. The state picks up the best public prosecutors to present its case in front of an independent judiciary. The judicial process takes up to 2 to 3 years at most and the suspects are either found guilty or declared innocent. In case of a guilty verdict, the convicts are sentenced to the appropriate punishment.

    Just want to make a couple of additional points.

    It should not be possible to bribe judges and witnesses in a case should be given protection against threats from powerful friends of the accused. A judicial system that has all the points that you mention can still fail on the two counts I have mentioned.

  2. libertarian

    @Adnan Syed: waiting for Part 2. Most thought-provoking.

  3. pankaj

    The STARTING point for change , reform,progress and all round improvement IS GIVING UP the obsession with INDIA . And Kashmir.

    This one step makes the militants and religious parties irrelevant.

    Pakistan Army can change the fortunes of pakistan.

  4. When a chief minister claims that a degree is a degree no matter fake or real, it speaks volumes about people we elect to represent us in the parliament. Unless every voter rises above one’s affiliation with a particular party, and the notion “friendly opposition” is shed away by a major political party head, no meaningful change is foreseeable in near future. We will continue to be ruled by those who dont the least love for this country. They only care for personal glory and wealth.

  5. Zainab Ali

    It is very important to support the building blocks of our society, in order to save it from chaos. Outcomes are necessary but according to the author, once we are able to strengthen our society, the outcomes would be achieved automatically.

  6. AZW


    Agree completely with you here. An independent well funded judicial system that is working independent of the government and providing all resources necessary to administer justice, is the one I talked about in an ideal world.

  7. Mansoor Khalid

    The negative feedback about Pakistan’s role in this war on terror is greatly hampering the efforts and sacrifices this nation has given. I believe this negative feedback is being fed by militant outfits and the responsibility to act with responsibility falls on the media.

  8. Ammar

    We need to addresses the core issues such as intolerance in society, lack of transparency in governance and more social development. If we want to fight extremism that we have to set our priorities straight

  9. AZW


    Negative feedback loop is a term used to signify a system that destroys itself as the negativity within the system breeds further negativity. Though the term started in physiology, it is now being occasionally used in economics where the economy is a system dependent on many of the factors to work together towards increasing the economic output. When the factors start working in the opposite direction, they reinforce the negativity resulting in the economy becoming self sustaining negative output system.

  10. Tilsim

    Great article. The only thing to add is that the first and urgent priority is to disarm and militarily defeat the extremists. Our laws and courts system need further strengthening too to make it easier to achieve prosecutions – this is a threat to individual freedoms but it’s an existential issue so have to take the risk.

    Today they have killed the chief of the Frontier constabulary. May God rest his soul in peace.

    If we can’t defeat the extremists, the rest is academic. The state will then be forced to succumb to their demands.

  11. ramesh

    All the arab islamic countries have weeded out this troublesome element from their society,why is Pak not able to achieve this.B.Desh has made an effort and has been able to control it to a great extent.

  12. simplyme

    I don’t understand why pakistan is in this vicious circle?Either become a secular country or a islamic republic in the real sense.But for god’s sake(and your people) make a choice and stick with it.

  13. rationalist

    ramesh writes:

    “All the arab islamic countries have weeded out this troublesome element from their society…”

    And exported it with bags of money and sacks of dynamite and loads of arabic propaganda to the non-arab countries – esp. to the land of the pure fanatsy.

  14. ramesh

    @rationalist,yes my friend Pak has welcomed this export and has groomed it to its present stage of lethal,intolerant killing monster which has turned on them.It is the beginning,mayhem ,killing and distruction plot has to play out before any sense is made and sanity prevails.this ideology of hate,violance,intolarance has to be defeated

  15. Sadia Hussain

    I think this perception is misleading, terrorism if cannot be eradicated but can surely be curtailed and for that we need to look beyond operations and work upon social development and engaging citizens in the peace building process.

  16. Tilsim

    @ Sadia

    “we need to look beyond operations and work upon social development and engaging citizens in the peace building process.”

    You are absolutely right but in the short term, the people need their lives protected from these animals.

    The State is not fully committed to the cause even now. That has to change.

    One line of thinking has been: ‘let’s try to reconcile and accomodate them’. Trying to reach some accomodation with these groups during Musharraf’s time and even now has only exacerbated the problem in many people’s view, including myself. These groups want control of the State and their religious fanatacism makes it an either/or situation. Swat is a perfect example of the fallacy of this argument.

    The other problem is that the State itself has powerful elements within it who are either sympathetic with the agenda of or actively aiding the extremists. A massive purge is necessary. The ISI has already had some purges. This will be destabilising but is necessary. Only the army can decide whether they are prepared to go for this.

    Lastly there is the poor institutional capacity in Pakistan. The State struggles at the best of times. This is not an easy fix and we need training and funds – that is where foreign countries can help us.

    The focus that you suggest is vital to get rid of this problem forever and to prevent new recruits. For this, the State has to deliver job opportunities, justice and the rule of law.

    Let’s look at one of these individual components, which is job creation.

    Job opportunities require private sector and state investment.

    Let’s take the State. The State is effectively bankrupt (we know the reasons why and don’t need to repeat them). That is the reason why it relies on debt and aid. The countries providing significant investment at state level are Saudi, US, China, EU, UAE. These funds are not being properly channelled. Some of it is being utilised. See, the massive roads building programme in Karachi as one example. However , infrastructure investment is only part of the story. We need to develop sustainable income generation. That is not the role of the state. Here it needs to partner with the private sector but by then, there is no money left in the kitty. Hopefully on this forum, someone much more knowledgeable than me can pick up and provide an evidence based analysis of what is happening with these funds.

    Ok so the State does not have money to work with the private sector. So what happens to the private sector. Why are they not investing? The private sector is not investing because 1) the law and order situation 2) massive corruption which has reached new heights under this government – every initiative costs more and takes an inordinate amount of time; time is money 3) the lack of basic facilities such as water and power 4) negative role of oligopolies that operate in Pakistan 5) an unskilled and unmotivated work force that seems to be more focussed on Allah Allah then putting in an honest day’s work. Money for nothing attitude.
    6) a lack of developed capital markets. To expand, one needs funds. In the west, both the banking sector and the equity markets are sources of funds. The banking sector is there in Pakistan. It’s on a fairly solid footing (one of our successes). The debt capital markets are not there. The equity markets are not there. We don’t have deep pocketed pension and life assurance funds which provide long term equity capital.

    An effective State should be focussed on fixing all these aspects. We can discuss potential solutions to this list of problems another time.

    Then we come to trade. Trade is an accelerator for growth. It also attracts inward foreign investment. When did you last hear an intelligent informed conversation about trade promotion from our politicians, opinion formers or anybody else for that matter. We may have high degrees of illiteracy but our leaderships’s business and economic literacy is truly shocking. May I remind people that Pakistan launched the Kargil operation in the midst of a time when we were about to default on our loans. Our trade policy is hostage to our security policy. This needs to be fixed urgently.

    I don’t need to say anything about attracting significant foreign investment. It’s not a realistic prospect at the moment. However, based on my discussions with a number of business men who do trade with India (through different channels), if we changed our security posture towards India and removed certain legal barriers, we would find significant inward investment from that country.

    Terrorism is a catastrophic result of our false national priorities. There is absolutely no excuse to keep on the same path. All our taboos need to be debated and laid bare. This is part of our engagement at an individual and collective level with our nation.

  17. Tilsim makes much sense as usual but the basic problem is that there isn’t a Pakistan. It simply doesn’t exist, except as a vague concept floating between a similarly undefined Pukhtunistan to the north, Baluchi tribals to the west, something of a commonality of interest between agricultural Sind and the Punjab.

    Of course Pakistan has a government centered in Islamabad, a centre of Public Relations which was unable even to control the depredations of the ‘Red Mosque.'(which has now been returned to its previous operators). It has another centre in Pindi where the military gather.

    As Tilsim points out, institutions are important. It has been said before and is till worth noting that the only major institution left by the British that still works is the military. The courts take forever and are corruptible; the police are all on the take;
    the universities and even, notably, Kinnaird womens’ college, have all lost their credit and their degrees are not recognized abroad. The civil service has been totally politicized (thank you Z.A.Bhutto), the banks have been prostituted to the politicians, and the country is devolving into a slum of competing baronies.

    What price sociological analysis? Where are the leaders? Still I miss your country and hope to come back before long. Please hope. JW

  18. AZW


    Good points. Let me introduce a negative feedback loop by comparing a hypothetical third world country (say PK) with a first world country (say FW) to reinforce the point that the four pillars of a stable society are the biggest differentiators between a developed and an under-developed country. It is a bit long narrative therefore please bear with me here.

    Assume, a religious fanatic killed a well known public member of a minority sect, a certain Mr. RR in both PK and FW. Further, let’s say that in both countries the killer was an extremist majority sect member who happened to be the son in law of the Chief Minister of the province.

    In FW, police promptly cordoned off the area and detectives started investigating the murder. FW has spent extensive resources to develop its rule of law institutions, and no expenses were spared in equipping the police department with trained criminologists and modern laboratories. Within 48 hours, the investigators have their suspect in sights. An independent court that is neither answerable to nor under pressure by the government, issues an arrest warrant for the suspect, who is arrested a few days later from his father’s village property. The prosecution collects necessary evidence using witnesses and modern forensics. The suspect is tried, found guilty and taken off the streets. His father spends a fortune to hire the best defense counsel, but to no avail.

    In PK, police botches the investigation from the start as underpaid, poorly trained police officials fail to secure the crime scene. Further the only two witnesses who have seen the murderer clearly know that they would be as good as dead if they go the police against the powerful son of the equally ruthless politician. Though police has a good idea of the guilty party, they have a very poor case.

    Even if they had a case, the inefficient judicial system will ensure that the case is not presented for a few years. And the prosecution may get quashed if the poorly paid session court judge is willing to accept a decent bribe to acquit the son.

    Emboldened by this turn of events, the killer goes out and commits more murders, killing his ideological nemesis and maybe a few more enemies here and there. The killer causes a few more kids to go orphan, thereby compromising their chances of getting decent education and becoming better members of the society. As state is not providing free education to its children (due to lack of funding, the reason we shall see at the end), the widows have less means to get their kids educated. The kids grow up to be half educated, petty thieves or larcenists, contributing to further aggravating a violent society. Since the original killer can get away with murders, his religiously motivated brethren are clear to go and eliminate their enemies as well.

    The failure of PK to bring the killer to justice results in other murders across the city. The city becomes known as a volatile metropolitan where targeted killings are the norm and rule of law is non-existent. A certain Mr. Q wants to set up an auto parts factory in PK, yet is dissuaded due to failure of the state to provide protection to its citizens. He is also troubled by stories of disgruntled youth who have held other industrialists hostage by demanding monthly ransom to let them keep operating in their city.

    Instead Mr. Q heads to FW where there is an educated working class, where government provides him with tax credits and protection of his properties and investments. Mr. Q’s business takes off; he employs 500 people, many of who were able to pay for the higher education of their kids due to the decent job opportunity that got from Mr. Q’s factory. Mr. Q himself pays millions of local currency in taxes from his successful business, and the government promptly cycles this money back into the society by keeping its infrastructure going, the rule of law well established and well funded, and keeping the positive feedback loop compounding over time.

    In contrast, PK remains mired in a constant state of anarchy. Economy grinds to a halt as very few want to put their capital to use in a volatile country. The country keeps on creating disgruntled youth who continue to overwhelm the police and judicial system that is poorly funded from the government. The government can not enforce tax collections. The taxes that Mr. Q would have paid never came to PK as Mr. Q and his colleagues went to FW. No revenues means no funds for schools, judicial institutions or the hospitals in PK. More disgruntled youth, more instability, more anarchy.

    And thus FW not only becomes a first world country, but continue to grow and enrich its citizens, and its society. Its society members do not have to worry about a killer killing them for their faith or caste; even if someone tries to do that, justice gears will start turning swiftly. They can go on to become professionals or entrepreneurs, enriching themselves and the others around them, thus reinforcing the positive feedback loop.

    PK remains where it was a generation ago; a stuttering and struggling third world country grinding under the negative loop that should never have been there if it had paid attention towards protecting the fundamental rights of its citizens.