The South Asian nation of Pakistan, one the world’s hot spots in the early 21st century, faces the Arabian Sea along its southern coast. The country borders Afghanistan to the northwest, Iran to the west, India to the east, and China to the north.
Pakistan’s varied terrain makes it a land of climatic extremes.
The scorched desert provinces of Sindh and Baluchistan can experience temperatures of more than 120°F while the frigid northern mountains can sink to below-zero temperatures. Pakistan’s northwest region has the country’s most temperate climate while the east and south make up the fertile Indus River floodplain. It was there that the country experienced one of the worst monsoon seasons and flooding events in Pakistani history beginning in July 2010, displacing about 20 million people and triggering an estimated death toll of 13,000–16,000. Most Pakistanis live in the Indus Valley and were in the worst possible place when the waters of the ancient river rushed over its banks with a ferocity not seen in living memory, leaving in its wake vast horizons of muddy water and inundated countryside. The international community then faced the most widespread humanitarian crisis since the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunamis, which ignited fears of more instability in a country already plagued by threats from Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Pakistan’s ethnic makeup consists of Punjabis, Sindhis, Pashtuns (Pathans), Balochis, and Mojahirs (Indian immigrants and their descendants). Almost all Pakistanis are Muslim, most of them adherents of the Sunni sect, though Pakistan is also home to some Christians and Hindus. Urdu and English are the official languages, but Punjabi is spoken by about two-thirds of the people. Other spoken languages include Sindhi, Pashto, and Balochi. Only about one-third of Pakistan’s more than 160 million people lives in the capital, Islamabad, and in other cities.
Pakistan sits in a region known for earthquakes caused by the slow collision of the Indian plate with the Eurasian plate. A powerful 7.5-magnitude quake hit the Hindu Kush region of Afghanistan on October 26, 2015. The quake caused buildings to collapse and instigated landslides that killed more than 360 people in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The quake also caused damage in India and Tajikistan.
Government and Politics
As a weak multiparty democracy, Pakistan has swung between democratic governments and unelected authoritarian leaders for decades.
Pakistan was said to be a major supporter of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime until September 11, 2001, when it aligned itself with U.S. President George W. Bush’s war on terror. The army remains a major force in Pakistani politics, and the military has ruled the country for half of its almost 60-year history as an independent nation. In May 2013 however, the first parliamentary elections to follow the completion of a full term by a democratically elected government took place. One-hundred and thirty people were killed in attacks during the campaign. Despite that, 55% of the voting population cast their ballots. Mohammad Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League won the contest, setting Sharif up to become prime minister for the third time in his political career. He inherited a plethora of problems including a failing economy, power shortages, separatist movements, and ongoing attacks by militant religious groups. Mamnoon Hussain, a close ally of Sharif’s won the presidential election in October 2013. It was the first time in Pakistan’s history that a civilian president was elected while an incumbent civilian president was still in office.
Bilateral peace efforts have largely abated the once-real possibility of a nuclear war with neighboring India over the disputed Kashmir region. Meanwhile, Islamic fundamentalism is negatively affecting Pakistan’s relations with the West, an important source of trade and aid. This tension was exacerbated when U.S. Navy SEALs flew into Pakistan on a secret night mission in May 2011—without informing Pakistan’s military or government—and killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.