Pakistan: Flirting with state failure?

Dr. Niaz Murtaza

Of all the frequent and embarrassing appearances that Pakistan presently makes on various lists of malfunctioning countries, none has rankled national pride more than its appearance on the Failed State Index of the US-based Fund for Peace. Since 2006, Pakistan has regularly ranked around no. 10 among 40-odd ‘critically failed ‘countries. Giving Pakistan regular company near the bottom are countries like Somalia, Afghanistan, Congo and Zimbabwe. Is Pakistan really a failed state and can it be redeemed?

A state’s essential functions include maintaining security, collecting taxes, managing the economy, providing infrastructure and social services, dealing with external entities and legislating. Of these, maintaining security is the most critical function. Poor performance on others and some weakness on the security function results in being designated a weak state, as are most developing countries. Excessive weakness on managing security leads to being designated a failed state. Finally, collapsed states are those where the government and even the army disappear or survive in exile, as in Somalia (perennial leader of the pack).

Unsurprisingly, nine of the bottom 10 countries on this list, including Pakistan, are war-ravaged. Zimbabwe, relatively peaceful but economically devastated, squeezes in only by raking up astronomical exchange rates of 50 trillion Zimbabwean dollars for one US dollar, and mindboggling annual inflation rates of almost 90 Sextillion (1021) percent, meaning that prices double every 24 hours. Prices often increased between the time we ordered food and got the bill in Zimbabwean restaurants!

What precipitates state failure? Theoretically, the state consists of a rational, neutral and cohesive set of institutions, which work for the common good. In practice, the state also becomes an arena for powerful societal groups to pursue their particularistic goals at the expense of others. This undermines broader state effectiveness.

All states exhibit both faces to varying degrees. In developed countries (mostly ethnically homogeneous), powerful groups pursue self-interest at the expense of poor countries, future generations (by massively exploiting the environment) and, to some extent, minorities. The majority of the population experiences the ‘rational’ side of the state, whose capacity is consequently considered high.

In most poor countries (mostly ethnically highly diverse), powerful groups can pursue their own goals mainly at the expense of their own masses, especially other ethnic groups. Consequently, the majority of people experience the state’s non-functional face. Such states are considered weak.

State weakness escalates into state failure when non-state actors demolish the state’s monopoly on the use of force within its boundaries. This can take several overlapping forms. In some cases, criminals, often in connivance with sections of the state, unleash street violence for economic gains, as in Guinea-Bissau. Elsewhere, disaffected ethnic or ideological groups (e.g., Al-Qaeda and Maoists) launch rebellions, as in nine of the bottom 10 countries on this index. Finally, sections of the state itself occasionally unleash violence on the masses for economic and sexual exploits, as in Congo.

The state apparatus is neither cohesive nor uniformly endowed. Those parts serving the masses usually shrivel while those serving the powerful remain robust. Failed states rarely fail the powerful.  Thus, many of the richest persons from poor countries come from failed states, e.g., Congo’s billionaire Mobutu. In contrast, one found pygmy communities in war-ravaged Eastern Congo reduced to drinking dirty water obtained from slit-up banana leaves, in the absence of state investment.

The Failed State Index focuses on the levels of the symptoms of these problems, such as the extent of displacement and violation of human rights, rather than the obduracy of underlying problems. Its ability to accurately measure even symptoms is questionable, being largely based on subjective, perhaps even politically motivated, judgments. Obviously, then, rank on the index provides few clues about how stubborn state failure is, since it ignores underlying problems.

In analyzing the underlying problems, it becomes apparent that Pakistan is the country most likely to exit soon from the bottom list after Zimbabwe (where the mere death of the 86-year old Mugabe may quickly do the trick). Pakistan got on the list due to failures on the security function, for its economic situation, bad as it is, does not compare with Zimbabwe’s. It currently suffers violence from three of the four sources mentioned above: criminal gangs, ethnic separatists in Balochistan and ideologically-driven Al-Qaeda/Taliban zealots. Pakistan’s sudden fall by 25 places and into the bottom category in 2006 shows that the escalation in violence by Al-Qaeda/Taliban was mainly responsible for its failed state designation, for the other two problems existed even earlier.

These problems self-evidently require different remedies. The violence from the mafia and Al-Qaeda militants, lacking popular support or justifiable cause, must primarily be dealt with by force. Greater economic opportunities and access to justice for vulnerable youth, though, are crucial as preventative remedies. In contrast, Balochistan’s militancy, stemming from genuine grievances, demands dialogue.  Pakistan is much better positioned than most companion failed countries on both remedies.

Pakistan possesses the strongest army among companion countries, one with unparalleled supremacy over its internal challengers. Not surprisingly, no-go areas have stayed below 10% of its territory compared with 99.9% for Somalia and 50%+ for Sudan, Afghanistan and Chad. In fact, some militant groups thrive not due to the military’s weaknesses but as part of its Russian Roulette-like regional ambitions under which internal turmoil and even mild, brief flirtations with state failure seem acceptable costs. Pakistan’s stronger democratic status also makes it better positioned to pacify ethnic tensions through dialogue than other countries where ethnic divisions stand beyond easy resolution without democracy, e.g., in Sudan which may split up soon.

This potential has increasingly transformed into reality as Musharraf’s self-serving policy of ‘soft on Taliban, hard in Balochistan’ (which got us on this list) is reversing slowly but rightly into ‘soft in Balochistan, hard on Taliban’ lately.  Thus, Pakistan is less a failed state and more one deliberately though dangerously flirting with and feigning failure, confident, probably rightly, in its ability to pull back from the abyss in time.

Dr. Niaz Murtaza, University of California, Berkeley, murtazaniaz@yahoo.com. Article appeared recently in Dawn


3 Comments

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3 responses to “Pakistan: Flirting with state failure?

  1. Pankaj

    In Pakistan the army is the most powerful institution with huge resources and almost all important powers

    The other groups resent this
    The other groups being the religious parties ,the sectarian groups , rich elite and the industrialists and the business men ,landlords etc

    The media and judiciary have recently discovered power

    So this fight amongst the power groups is what has damaged the state

    SO the army gets the Lion’s share of the goodies and the rest turn into hynaes and fight with each other

  2. Umair wasi

    The state comprises Territory, population, Govt and sovereignty.
    Is it have anything among all out of dispute?

  3. iqbal akhund

    Pakistan has an elected parliament and democratic government, a free press, active judiciary, well- equiped army, growing civil society etc. It is not a failed state but is seen as one because the economy is in the doldrums. But it is a corrupt state and society, a bigoted state and society and has been so throughout the many alternations between democratic and military rule. Sadly, it will remain so when the economy picks up and it no longer looks like a failed state because corruption is institutionlized e.g. in land develpment policies and our education system fosters narrow-mindedness