Some of the earliest ancient human civilisations in South Asia originated from areas encompassing present-day Pakistan. The earliest known inhabitants in the region were Soanian, of whom stone tools have been found in the Soan Valley of Punjab. The Indus region, which covers most of Pakistan, was the site of several successive ancient cultures. The ruins of ancient civilizations at Mohenjodaro and at Harappa in the southern Indus Valley testify to the existence of an advanced urban civilization that flourished in the second half of the third millennium BC.

The Vedic Civilization (1500–500 BCE), characterised by Indo-Aryan culture, laid the foundations of Hinduism, which would become well established in the region. Multan was an important Hindu pilgrimage centre. The Vedic civilisation flourished in the ancient Gandharan city of Taksasila, now Taxila in Punjab.

Successive ancient empires and kingdoms ruled the region: the Persian Empire around 519 BCE, Alexander the Great’s empire in 326 BCE and the Maurya Empire founded by Chandragupta Maurya and extended by Ashoka the Great until 185 BCE. The Indo-Greek Kingdom founded by Demetrius of Bactria (180–165 BCE) included Gandhara and Punjab and reached its greatest extent under Menander (165–150 BCE), prospering the Greco-Buddhist culture in the region. Taxila had one of the earliest universities and centres of higher education in the world.

The Medieval period (642–1219 CE) is defined by the spread of Islam in the region. During this period, Sufi missionaries played a pivotal role in converting a majority of the regional Buddhist and Hindu population to Islam. The Rai Dynasty (489–632 CE) of Sindh, ruled this region and the surrounding territories. The Pala Dynasty was the last Buddhist empire that under Dharampala and Devapala stretched across South Asia from what is now Bangladesh through Northern India to Pakistan and later to Kamboj region in Afghanistan.

The Arab conqueror Muhammad bin Qasim conquered Indus valley from Sindh to Multan in southern Punjab in 711 CE. The Pakistan government’s official chronology identifies this as the point where the “foundation” of Pakistan was laid. This conquest set the stage for the rule of several successive Muslim empires in the region, including the Ghaznavid Empire (975–1187 CE), the Ghorid Kingdom and the Delhi Sultanate (1206–1526 CE). Islam, now the dominant cultural influence in Pakistan, arrived with Arab traders in the 8th century AD. Successive overland waves of Muslims followed, culminating in the ascendancy of the Mughals. Led initially by Babur, a grandson of Genghis Khan, the Mughal empire flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Mughals introduced Persian literature and high culture, establishing the roots of Indo-Persian culture in the region.

The Mughals remained in nominal control until well after the British East India Company came to dominate the region in the early 18th century. Effective British governance of the areas that now make up Pakistan was not consolidated until well into the second half of the 19th century.

Nationalism and the Rise of the Muslim League

The gradual decline of the Mughal Empire in the early 18th century enabled the Sikh Empire’s influence to control larger areas until the British East-India Company gained ascendancy over the Indian subcontinent. The rebellion in 1857 was the region’s major armed struggle against the British Empire and Queen Victoria. Divergence in the relationship between Hinduism and Islam created a major rift in British India; thus instigating racially motivated religious violence in India.
The language controversy further escalated the tensions between Hindus and Muslims. The Hindu renaissance witnessed the awakening of intellectualism in traditional Hinduism and saw the emergence of more assertive influence in the social and political spheres in British India.

Intellectual movement to counter the Hindu renaissance was led by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan who helped founding the All-India Muslim League in 1901 and envisioned as well as advocated for the two-nation theory. Sentiment among Muslims began to coalesce around the “two-nation” theory propounded by the poet Iqbal, which declared that Muslims and Hindus were separate nations and that Muslims required creation of an independent Islamic state for their protection and fulfilment.

A Bombay (now Mumbai) attorney, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who came to be known “Quaid-i-Azam” (Great Leader), led the fight for a separate Muslim state to be known as Pakistan. The Muslim League endorsed the project at Lahore in 1940.

Jinnah’s quest succeeded on 14 August 1947 when British India was divided into the two self-governing dominions of India and Pakistan, the latter created by combining contiguous, Muslim-majority districts in British India, the former consisting of the remainder. Partition occasioned a mass movement of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs who found themselves on the “wrong” side of new international boundaries; more than 20 million people moved, and up to three million of these were killed.

As the British agreed upon partitioning of India in 1947, the modern state of Pakistan was established on 14 August 1947 (27th of Ramadan in 1366 of the Islamic Calendar) in amalgamating the Muslim-majority eastern and north western regions of British India. It comprised the provinces of Balochistan, East Bengal, the North-West Frontier Province, West Punjab and Sindh; thus forming Pakistan. Muhammad Ali Jinnah became the nation’s first Governor-General as well as first President-Speaker of the Parliament. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s founding fathers agreed upon appointing Liaquat Ali Khan, the secretary-general of the party, the nation’s first Prime Minister.

With dominion status in the Commonwealth of Nations, independent Pakistan had two British monarchs before it became a republic. Democracy was stalled by the martial law enforced by President Iskander Mirza who was replaced by army chief, General Ayub Khan. From the capital in Karachi, in West Pakistan, the leaders of the new state laboured mightily to overcome the economic dislocations of Partition, which cut across all previous former economic linkages, while attempting to establish a viable parliamentary government with broad acceptance in both wings. Jinnah’s death in 1948 and the assassination in 1951 of Liaquat Ali Khan, its first prime minister, were major setbacks, and political stability proved elusive, with frequent recourse to proclamations of martial law and states of emergency in the years following 1954.

Forming presidential system in 1962, the country experienced exceptional growth until a second war with India in 1965 which led to economic downfall and wide-scale public disapproval in 1967. Consolidating the control from Ayub Khan in 1969, President Yahya Khan had to deal with a devastating cyclone which caused 500,000 deaths in East Pakistan.

East–West Divide

Pakistan also faced the daunting challenging of trying to bridge a profound political and ethnic gap that existed between its west and east wings. The Bengali east wing was economically more important, but political power rested in the Sindhi and Punjabi factions of the west wing. In 1958, the Army chief, Gen. Muhammad Ayub Khan, seized control of Pakistan, imposing martial law and banning all political activity for several years. Ayub later dissolved provincial boundaries in the west wing, converting it to “one unit,” to balance East Pakistan. Each “unit” had a single provincial government and equal strength in an indirectly elected national legislature; the effect was to deny East Pakistan its population advantage, as well as its ability, as the largest province, to play provincial politics in the west wing.

Ayub’s efforts failed to establish stability or satisfy the demands for restoration of parliamentary democracy. Weakened by his abortive military adventure against India in September 1965 and amid rising political strife in both wings in 1968, Ayub was eventually forced from office. General Muhammad Yayha Khan, also opposed to greater autonomy for the east wing, assumed the presidency in 1969. Again martial law was imposed and political activity suspended.

In 1970, Pakistan held its first democratic elections since independence, that were meant to mark a transition from military rule to democracy, but after the East Pakistani Awami League won against Pakistan People’s Party (PPP); Yahya Khan and the military establishment refused to hand over power. Civil unrest flared in the East Wing and the military launched an operation on 25 March 1971, aiming to regain control of the province.

The genocide carried out during this operation led to a declaration of independence and to the waging of a war of liberation by the Bengali Mukti Bahini forces in East Pakistan, with support from India. However, in West Pakistan the conflict was described as a civil war as opposed to War of Liberation. Independent estimates of civilian deaths during this period range from 300,000 to 3 million. Pre-emptive strikes on India by the Pakistan’s air force, navy, and marines sparked the conventional war in 1971, which witnessed the Indian victory and East Pakistan gaining independence as Bangladesh.

Authoritarian Politics

The loss of East Pakistan led to the resignation on 20 December 1971 of Yahya Khan and brought to the presidency Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whose populist Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) had won a majority of seats in the west wing. A long time minister under Ayub Khan, Bhutto quickly charted an independent course for West Pakistan, which became the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. He distanced Pakistan from former close ties with the United States and the west, seeking security from India by a much more active role in the Third World and especially in the growing international Islamic movement fuelled by petrodollars.

Bhutto launched limited land reform, nationalized banks and industries, and obtained support among all parties for a new constitution promulgated in 1973, restoring a strong prime ministership, which position he then stepped down to fill. In the years following, Bhutto grew more powerful and autocratic. His regime became increasingly dependent on harassment and imprisonment of foes and his popular support seriously eroded by the time he called for elections in March 1977. His PPP had lost many of its supporters, and he came to rely increasingly on discredited former PML members for support.

An era of self-consciousness, intellectual leftism, nationalism, and nationwide reconstruction ensued. During this period, Pakistan embarked on ambitiously developing the nuclear deterrence in 1972 in a view to prevent any foreign invasion; the country’s first nuclear power plant was inaugurated in the same year. Accelerated in response to first nuclear test by India in 1974, this crash program completed in 1979. Democracy ended with a military coup in 1977 against the leftist PPP, which saw General Zia-ul-Haq become the president in 1978. From 1977 to 1988, President Zia’s corporatisation and economic Islamisation initiatives led to Pakistan becoming one of the fastest-growing economies in South Asia.

Zia brought Bhutto to trial for conspiracy to murder a political rival in which the rival’s father was killed. He also expanded his “cabinet” with the addition of several PNA leaders as advisors, and, when the incumbent resigned, he assumed the added responsibilities (and title) of president. Bhutto’s conspiracy conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court in March 1979, and he was hanged on 4 April.

While consolidating the nuclear development, increasing Islamization, and the rise of home grown conservative philosophy, Pakistan helped subsidize and distribute U.S. resources to factions of the mujahideen against the USSR’s intervention in communist Afghanistan.

President Zia along 18 officials (including the American Ambassador) died in a plane crash in 1988, and Benazir Bhutto, daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was elected as the country’s first female Prime Minister. With her support Pakistan’s electoral college chose Ghulam Ishaq President of Pakistan in his own right on 12 December 1988. But the alliance was brief, Ghulam Ishaq on 20 August 1990 used his powers as president to remove Bhutto from leadership. He declared yet another a state of emergency, dissolved the National Assembly, named Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi (then leader of the opposition) prime minister, and called for new elections on 24 October.

The voters gave a near-majority to the Islamic Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI), a multiparty coalition resting mainly on a partnership of the PML and the JI. Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, PML leader and former chief minister of Punjab, became prime minister on 6 November and quickly ended the state of emergency.

During late 1992 and early 1993, the president and the new prime minister moved toward a new confrontation over the exercise of their respective powers. Challenged by Nawaz Sharif on the president’s choice of a new army chief, Ghulam Ishaq again used his eighth amendment powers to dismiss the government and dissolve the assembly on 18 April, alleging mismanagement and corruption. But public reaction to the president’s actions was strong, and on 26 May, a Supreme Court ruling restored Nawaz Sharif to power, creating a period of constitutional gridlock until 18 July when the army chief brokered a deal in which both Ghulam Ishaq and Nawaz Sharif left office. Sharif resigned and was replaced by Ishaq Khan as interim prime minister by Moeen Qureshi, a former World Bank vice president; the president was then replaced by Wasim Sajjad, chairman of the senate.

Under Qureshi, Pakistan entered a period of fast-paced nonpartisan rule and reform in which widespread corruption was exposed, corrupt officials dismissed, and political reforms undertaken. In his actions, Qureshi was strengthened by public support and his lack of interest in remaining in power. He held elections as promised on 19 October, and the PPP, leading a coalition called the People’s Democratic Alliance (PDA), was returned to power, with Benazir Bhutto again prime minister.

On 13 November, with her support, long time PPP stalwart Farooq Leghari was elected president. Three years later in 1996, Leghari dismissed Bhutto and her cabinet and dissolved the National Assembly. Bhutto challenged her dismissal and the dissolution of the National Assembly in the Supreme Court. In a 6–1 ruling, the Court upheld the president’s actions and found her ousted government corrupt.

Nawaz Sharif won the general election held in February 1997 with one of the largest democratic mandates in Pakistan’s history. He immediately set about consolidating his hold on power by repealing major elements of the 1985 Eighth Constitutional Amendment. This transferred sweeping executive powers from the president to the prime minister. Within the next few months Nawaz Sharif dismissed his Chief of Naval Staff, arrested and imprisoned Benazir Bhutto’s husband for ordering the killing of a political opponent, and froze the Bhutto family’s assets. In March 1998, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Benazir Bhutto on charges of misuse of power during her tenure as prime minister.

Nawaz Sharif gained a popularity boost when Pakistan successfully tested five nuclear devices on 28 May and 30 May 1998. This was in response to India’s nuclear tests earlier in the month and raised international concerns over a potential nuclear confrontation between Pakistan and India. Tensions eased when Nawaz Sharif and India’s prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, signed the historic “Lahore Declaration” on 21 February 1999, committing their countries to a peaceful solution of their problems.

In May 1999, however, several hundred Pakistani troops and Islamic militants infiltrated the Indian-held Kargil region of Kashmir. Two months of intense fighting brought Pakistan and India to the brink of all-out war. Under intense diplomatic pressure from the United States, but against the wishes of Pakistan’s military, Nawaz Sharif ordered a withdrawal from Kargil in July 1999. This unpopular decision contributed to the prime minister’s eventual downfall.

The Musharraf Years

Distrustful of his army chief of staff, General Pervez Musharraf, Nawaz Sharif dismissed Musharraf on 12 October 1999 while he was in the air returning from a visit to Sri Lanka. However, when the general’s plane was denied permission to land at Karachi Airport, army troops loyal to Musharraf seized the airport, arrested Sharif, and returned Pakistan to military rule for the fourth time in the country’s history.

General Musharraf declared yet another state of emergency, suspended the constitution and assumed power as chief executive. Many Pakistanis welcomed the military takeover as a change from the corruption and abuses of Nawaz Sharif’s rule. Musharraf introduced modest economic reforms (mostly in the area of revenue collection), restricted the activities of Islamic extremists, and instituted policies to curb lawlessness and sectarian violence.

On 23 March 2000, Musharraf announced local elections to be held over a period of seven months between December 2000 and July 2001. Significantly, however, no mention was made of national elections or a return to civilian rule. Moreover, the independence of the judiciary was seriously compromised in January 2000, when Musharraf required all judges to take an oath of loyalty to his regime. Nawaz Sharif was tried and found guilty of hijacking and terrorism for trying to prevent Musharraf’s plane, a commercial flight with civilians on board, from landing at Karachi in October 1999. Sharif was sentenced on 16 April 2000 to life in prison. In December he went into exile in Saudi Arabia after being pardoned by military authorities.

On 20 June 2001 General Musharraf named himself president of Pakistan while remaining head of the army. After 11 September 2001, Musharraf supported the US-led bombing campaign in Afghanistan and ties between the two countries were greatly strengthened. The United States removed some sanctions imposed on Pakistan after its 1998 nuclear tests and after the Taliban were removed from power in Afghanistan in late 2001, the United States moved to strengthen counterterrorism operations in Pakistan.

On 13 December 2001, the Indian Parliament was attacked by five suicide fighters, and India blamed the attack on two Pakistan-based Islamic organizations, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad, accusing Pakistan of supporting the groups and giving their leaders sanctuary. Tensions between the two countries flared, and they began to amass hundreds of thousands of troops along their shared border. Pakistan banned Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba, although it claimed India had not provided evidence of the groups’ involvement in the attack. The standoff between India and Pakistan continued for 10 months, and through 2003, the two countries continued to test-fire ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons.

Pakistan’s ties to the United States and proximity to Afghanistan made it home in 2002 and 2003 to series of violent acts against Westerners or Christians. Nevertheless, in April 2002, Pakistan’s military regime held a referendum on General Musharraf’s presidency; 98% of the votes cast were in favour of Musharraf, giving him another 5-year term as president.

In August, he unilaterally implemented 29 amendments to the constitution to grant himself the power to dissolve parliament and to remove the prime minister. He also gave the military a formal role in governing the country for the first time by setting up a National Security Council that would oversee the performance of parliament, the prime minister, and his or her government. Parliamentary elections were held on 10 October, with Quaid-e-Azam, a political faction of the Muslim League supportive of Musharraf, taking the most seats.

India and Pakistan declared a formal cease-fire in Kashmir in November 2003, and relations between the two countries were slowly improving. A bus link between the India- and Pakistan-controlled portions was established in April 2005, and both countries cooperated to some degree with the distribution of humanitarian aid following a deadly earthquake that struck the region on 8 October 2005.

When the National Assembly historically completed its first full five-year term on 15 November 2007, the new elections were called by the Election Commission.

After the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007, the PPP secured the largest votes in the elections of 2008, appointing party member Yousaf Raza Gillani as Prime Minister. Threatened with facing impeachment, President Musharraf resigned on 18 August 2008, and was succeeded by Asif Ali Zardari. Clashes with the judicature prompted Gillani’s disqualification from the Parliament and as the Prime Minister in June 2012.

By its own financial calculations, Pakistan’s involvement in the war on terrorism has cost up to $67.93 billion, thousands of casualties and nearly 3 million displaced civilians. The general election held in 2013 saw the PML(N) almost achieve a supermajority, following which Nawaz Sharif became elected as the Prime Minister, returning to the post for the third time after fourteen years, in a democratic transition.