The Whole Truth

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The Whole Truth

Michael Kugelman

There’s more to Pakistan than the tribal belt.

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2m 48sec

In his piece for the current issue of The Wilson Quarterly, my colleague Zahid Hussain masterfully evokes the volatility and lawlessness of Pakistan’s tribal belt. As he suggests, bringing some semblance of stability to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas is essential for the future of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States. 

At the same time, we must not let this remote frontier dominate our perceptions of Pakistan. There is after all another Pakistan—settled Pakistan, and particularly its vibrant cities. These are home to the country’s growing pharmaceutical, finance, and information technology industries. Lahore, Pakistan’s cultural capital, boasts the Lahore University of Management Sciences, one of Asia’s most prestigious higher education institutes. A professor there was recently recognized by Technology Review as one of the world’s top 35 innovators.
Yet Pakistan’s cities also suffer from grinding poverty, high unemployment, and natural resource constraints. With Pakistan urbanizing rapidly, these problems will likely worsen. Such conditions, coupled with the strong urban influence of deeply conservative Islamic ideologies, are helping fuel the extremism now afflicting Pakistan’s cities.
Urban Pakistan reflects a critical convergence—one where the promise of change and the threat of instability are coming together. For this reason, it represents, according to a new Wilson Center report, a “logical focus” for U.S. civilian assistance. I served as a member of the working group that produced this study, entitled Aiding Without Abetting: Making U.S. Civilian Assistance to Pakistan Work for Both Sides.
The report calls for Washington to redirect its aid monies from Pakistan’s tribal areas to its cities. Assistance efforts should fund urban clean water, electricity, and sanitation. They should sponsor adult literacy training programs in urban slums. And they should help the country’s largely urban-based small and medium enterprise sector. Such enterprises generate 85 percent of non-agricultural jobs, yet job skills training programs are sorely deficient in Pakistan. Accordingly, we call for Washington to finance vocational training programs for the many young urban Pakistanis who are semi-educated, but lacking in the professional skills sought by employers.
The report does not mean to malign U.S. aid efforts in Pakistan’s remote regions. The U.S. Agency for International Development is funding the completion of a dam in South Waziristan that is projected to generate 35 megawatts of power to tens of thousands of local households—a worthy intervention in energy-crippled Pakistan.
Yet outside of the tribal belt, the United States can do so much more. Given the perilous security situation of the tribal areas, building and maintaining aid projects constitute major challenges. And given its inaccessibility (media reportage in the area is rare), it is difficult for Pakistanis around the country to see and appreciate the projects that are completed—which works against Washington’s objective to showcase “high-visibility,” “high-impact” aid projects.  
Leveraging U.S. civilian assistance to help stabilize the tribal areas is a worthy goal. Yet doing so in urban settings is simply more realistic.
Michael Kugelman is the South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He can be reached at or on Twitter @MichaelKugelman.
Photo credit: Lahore by Guilhem Vellut via flickr