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Research Question

  1. What are the most salient observations about Pakistan's urbanization, in relation to the nation's electoral politics, likelihood of governmental stability or reform, and security challenges directed at both domestic and global targets?

Already one of the most urbanized nations in South Asia, Pakistan is projected to have a majority of its population living in cities within three decades. This demographic shift will alter Pakistan's politics and threaten its stability, but the political and security implications of Pakistan's urbanization remain underanalyzed. This report examines urbanization as a potential driver of long-term insecurity and instability, with particular attention to the cities of Karachi, Lahore, and Quetta. Drawing on demographic trends, election results, and survey data, the authors conclude that urbanization may fuel anti-American sentiment and help recruitment by transnational Islamist groups (but not necessarily Islamist political parties) in the short term. Urbanization is also likely to increase popular demand for political reform in Pakistan. In the near future, a Pakistani government more directly accountable to its electorate might be less willing to cooperate with the United States in unpopular security policies. In the long run, however, a Pakistani government more responsive to its citizens could be a better security partner for the United States. By spurring Pakistani policymakers to focus on provision of good governance and public services rather than on scapegoating external actors, political reform may eventually help reduce anti-American attitudes.

Key Findings

Increasing Urbanization May Fuel Anti-American Sentiment in the Near Term

  • Urbanization is often accompanied by increased access to national and international news.
  • In Pakistan, news about the United States typically focuses on inflammatory topics, such as drones, Guantanamo, and conflict in the Middle East.

Increasing Urbanization May Fuel Radical Transnational Islamist Groups

  • Pakistanis working in large cities are exposed to forms of Islam quite different from the Sufi-inflected practice of their ancestral villages.

Increasing Urbanization Is Likely to Change the Dynamic of Counterterrorism

  • In recent years, the locus of U.S. counterterrorism operations has often been lightly settled areas in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
  • The type of counterterrorism operations favored in rural areas (particularly drone strikes) is virtually impossible in an urban setting, where the tactics and strategy required are far different.

Demography and Urbanization Are Likely to Increase Demand for Political Reform

  • While rural citizens might have suffered poor governance in silence, their urbanized children are less likely to do so.
  • In the near term, demand for accountability decreases the ability of Pakistani leaders to pursue policies (such as tacit support for U.S. drone strikes) that are highly unpopular.
  • In the long term, however, the trend may prove beneficial to U.S. security interests.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Urbanization Trends in Pakistan

  • Chapter Three

    Karachi, Lahore, Quetta: A Tale of Three Cities

  • Chapter Four

    The Political Environment

  • Chapter Five

    Security Considerations

  • Chapter Six

    Lessons for the Future

  • Appendix

    Most Populous Cities

The research underlying this report was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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