The weak state of Pakistan


Willam Milam

SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association)

Political theory scholars continue to argue over the concept of strong and weak states, not only how each got that way, but also whether the condition, no matter how it is defined, is immutable or improvable. This has become especially relevant in the past few decades in the larger context of state failure giving impetus to regional instability and spawning extremism, as well as in the decided retrogression of democratization around the world.

The characteristics of strong and weak states are not so much in dispute as the determinants. The main criteria for a strong state are control over its entire territory. Secondary benchmarks such as the ability to protect its citizens, to provide law and order, justice, and other public goods are also important.

But as to determinants, scholars are all over the place. Some still believe that geography is destiny, that for example that mountainous terrain is not fertile ground for strong states, while flat terrain is because it supports sedentary agriculture. Afghanistan, they say, cannot build a strong state. But what about flat and fertile Bangladesh which aspires to be a strong state but flunks almost every test of governance. And what about Peru where the Incas built a strong state in very mountainous terrain and with that state about 40,000 km of roads. (Maybe it was the roads that made the state strong.)

Pakistan has used geography to weaken the state

The explanations that make more sense focus on social and cultural factors, and especially on how the institutions of the state are created and evolve over time. I am tempted to point out that Pakistan has used geography to weaken the state, not strengthen it, by relying for many years on its geostrategic significance to avoid political and economic reform.

The debate goes back to the 17th century, to the cleavage between Thomas Hobbes, who conceived of a “social contract” that gave rulers absolute power to govern—the Leviathan, Hobbes called it—and those who followed John Locke and spoke for a social contract that limited government, giving rights that would be considered “inalienable” to the people. Hobbes felt that only the strong would survive without an absolute power imposing order and his social contract traded individual liberty for safety and order. Locke argued, essentially, that some rights are universal and governments’ job is to protect those rights.

Some scholars have found evidence of societies in which the disadvantaged run from strong states, opting out of the society for fear that an authoritarian strong state will be the instrument of repression and extraction by its elites. But others have also found that some disadvantaged segments of society see a strong, sometimes authoritarian state, as a bulwark against their own rapacious elites. And some recent research has posited the idea of a “consensually strong” state, one which is strong because its citizens insist it be so to provide the public goods they desire. They have the power to turn out the government if these good are not forthcoming. This seems to be the case in Scandinavia, where the states are politically weak, under direct control of their citizens. So unlike the authoritarian states which cannot be controlled by their citizens, and thus provide public goods of their own choosing, sometimes aimed at increasing the economic rents that its elites rake off, these consensually strong states are controlled by their citizens and must give the public what it demands.

It is not clear where all this leaves us with regard to Pakistan. I suspect that all political theory scholars would agree that is that Pakistan is a flagrant example of a weak state. It appears to be among those who are overtly weak— those for which the answer to core question of state strength—whether it controls its own territory, or to put it another way, whether it maintains a monopoly on the use of violence throughout its territory, the bedrock definition of a strong state—is clearly a ringing “no.” This is indisputable given a 40-year insurgency in Baluchistan, the decade-long war against the Pakistan Taliban, as well the existence of a plethora of armed militant groups throughout the country with agendas that are in stark contrast to the government’s agenda and which, in many cases, seem to operate openly and often with an apparent measure of impunity. In addition, Pakistan falls far short in many of the other measures of state strength. These include most of the areas of governance—law and order, justice, health services, education, social advancement of women, and the provision of many other public goods.

But whether this is a clear and certain signal of the inevitable failure of the state over some timeline we can see only dimly is not sure. Yes, all the signs look dismal at present. It will take a sweeping transformation of the society and the polity to reverse the course. One could call it a revolution, but the trouble with revolutions is that the guys with the guns usually win, and in Pakistan’s case that is either the army or the extremists.

Two very small glimmers of light that flicker in the tunnel ahead interest me, however, though they are too weak to cast any glow of optimism. First, many Pakistanis now seem to realize that hiding from necessary reform behind “geographic significance” is not just counterproductive, it is downright pernicious. The question is: will the public demand that the politicians recognize this. If the public does not, then the politicians will not. And Pakistan’s friends, whose core interest must be helping to build a strong but democratic state, may be awakening to that thought also. A reformed Pakistan that lives within its means would be a welcome turnaround.

Second, unlike Bangladesh, its former other half, which appears to have chosen the Hobbesian authoritarian path to strength (and is unlikely to achieve it), Pakistan could be poised to choose the Lockian path of limited government and assured rights. The recent hijinks in the streets of Islamabad show democratic feeling still strong, both in regard to the undemocratic way the marchers wanted to change the government, but also in the lack of support for military involvement. I note also that a small core of very brave Pakistanis continue to push for the extension of, codification of, and enforcement of universal human rights. This is a very small and weak seed, but with careful nurturing could produce a green shoot of two. Pakistan’s foreign friends should perhaps take notice and find ways to keep the seed alive.


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