Why Pakistan is Not a Failed State
June 27, 2012 12 Comments
Why Pakistan is Not a Failed State
The characterization of Pakistan as a failed state is one which has become so ingrained in popular discourse that its mention is often taken as a given and barely raises an eyebrow. That the 5th most populous country in world and one of the small handful of nations which possesses nuclear weapons is deemed to have “failed” and put into the same category of anarchic lawlessness as countries such as Somalia and Afghanistan is no trivial matter; yet as much as this is repeated to be the case in the media even a cursory survey of the country would show this assumption to be false. While Pakistan is wracked with problems of militancy, social inequality, environmental degradation and bureaucratic incompetence, it is still in most parts a functioning society where millions of people manage to live, work and raise families with a reliable degree of stability and security.
Despite suffering through a civil war and callous fiscal mismanagement, the number of Pakistanis living in poverty fell by almost half between 1999 and 2008, to about 17% of the population. This economic growth was largely driven by exports and remittances from Pakistanis working abroad and contributed to several years in the intervening period where the economy grew at a rate near 8%, on par at the time with the fastest growing economies in the world. Little of this information typically reaches the Western media where Pakistan has been portrayed as a quintessentially hopeless country oscillating between extremism and simple destitution, yet it is still reality. While this economic growth has been inefficiently managed and unequally distributed across society, it is still indicative of the continued functioning of Pakistani society and would be utterly impossible in a state which has “failed”. Pakistan is home to major textile and manufacturing industries which contribute to nearly a third of GDP, but also has a fast growing technology sector as well. Pakistan’s IT industry is estimated at $2.8 billion by AT Kearney, and between the years 2007 to 2009 improved from 30th place to 20th most favourable place in the world for IT offshoring. The telecommunications industry has grown fourteen-fold since 2000; Pakistan has 91 million people plugged into its mobile networks and has one of the highest mobile teledensities in the world. The World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index ranked Pakistan 85th in the world in 2009, ahead of even China (88th) and India (133 th) in having liberal policies and an investment climate favourable to FDI. The Pakistani banking system also weathered the 2008-2009 financial crisis exceptionally well, and has turned profits of an average of $1.1bn per year in the intervening years. The country is ranked 33rd in the world in terms of access and availability to capital; a not-insignificant standing. Citing these figures is not an apologia for the failure of the Pakistani government to harness the economic potential of the country and alleviate the crushing poverty experienced by a huge number of Pakistanis, but to merely point out the existence economic phenomena which would be impossible in an anarchic “failed state”. Indicative of at least some governmental will to address this, the PPP government to its great credit in 2009 implemented economic policies to redistribute a greater share of income to the Pakistan’s poorer provinces; again a sign of a state which still manages when pressed to function in its own interest, despite its shortcomings.
Pakistan also possesses an independent, frankly activist, judiciary which for better or for worse (depending on your political allegiances) is something that would not be possible in a state which has ceased to operate. The Pakistani Lawyers Movement in 2008 helped removed the military dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf from power after holding him and his regime to account for the disappearances of hundreds of Pakistani citizens held in military custody over the war on terror – significant of a judicial branch which is capable, however imperfectly at times, of protecting the legal rights of its citizens even in the face of power. Again, no such civil society exists in any other states popularly characterized as “failed”; and while Pakistan in sum is certainly not a model of predictable and impartial law and order it is also certainly not a land of utter lawlessness and chaos. The Supreme Court acts in what it perceives to be the citizens interest and uses the rule of law to accomplish this, this is not in dispute and again something which would not be possible in a failed society.
Foreign policy is the realm where Pakistan is most often depicted as a free-for-all where it is incapable of acting in its own self-interest. The most prominent example given for this is the supposedly irrational duplicity of Pakistan in relation to its U.S. ally in the war on Afghanistan. To the contrary, however antagonistic Pakistan’s actions have been to the U.S. in this war, the Pakistani state itself has acted in perfect alignment with its interests and in fact is grudgingly conceded by many within the American security establishment to have played its cards well in a difficult situation. The United States will be leaving Afghanistan soon in a situation which is almost universally believed will shortly result in civil war. Pakistan’s prime strategic concern is India, and specifically the fear that India may use its strategic depth in Afghanistan to “encircle” Pakistan, giving them the advantage of being able to wage a two front war if the countries ever came again to open hostilities. To this end, Pakistan has not sacrificed its shock troops for the coming civil war (the Haqqani Network, the Afghan Taleban) and has kept them in pocket while continuing to extract payments from the United States to kill and pursue Al Qaeda members, which it undeniably has done in earnest, however incompletely and imperfectly. Not only is this rational, even if it is understandably irritating to its American “allies”, but it is in line with Pakistani public sentiment which is overwhelmingly sympathetic with the Afghan Taleban (though not the Pakistani iteration), and views their war as a legitimate resistance against foreign occupation in the vein of the resistance to the Soviets in the 1980’s. Again, this is rational and self-interested behaviour more characteristic of a functional state than a failed one, despite the hostility such policies will necessarily generate among those whose interests it opposes. The killing of Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil on the other hand is indicative of one of two things; either a faction within its security establishment which offered him a measure of protection or an ill-fated the decision by the Pakistani government to hold onto him until an advantageous moment arose to turn him over and “play their card”. Regardless it was certainly a deservedly black mark on the country and a failure of administration and leadership, but by no means necessarily a failure of the state itself.
While Pakistan’s dysfunctions are well documented, it also possesses certain innate strengths which have allowed it to survive an incredibly tumultuous and painful decade. Pakistan has been overwhelmed with refugees from the war in Afghanistan and has seen its own social fabric torn apart by extremists radicalized (by their own description) in response to that conflict. It was inundated by a devastating flood in 2010 which submerged over 20% of its total landmass and which many predicted would be the knockout blow to the Pakistani state, yet it remained stoic and recovered to the surprise of many doomsayers. It has weathered blow after blow and continued to function though it has undoubtedly failed its citizens in many places as well. While it may be a weakened and conflicted state, no one who has been to its cities and towns can say it has “failed”. Pakistan has persisted to stay on its feet despite a decade of incredible misfortune, and by this time one should take eager predictions of its imminent collapse with a necessary grain of salt. Whatever ones perception of it, Pakistan is undeniably a hugely consequential country in the world. In the geopolitical sense it is indeed “too big to fail” and if it were to fail it would not be a matter of debate or ambiguity, the world would be impacted in a major way. Noting this, it is time cast aside the facile and inaccurate description of Pakistan as a failed state while maintaining vigilant that if its internal dilemmas are not competently addressed it could indeed fail, with disastrous consequences. Despite the turmoil which undoubtedly exists in the country, there are still signs of world-class progress and development in the country, from skyscraper complexes in Karachi to solar power fields in Islamabad, Pakistan continues to amble along in its development, however unevenly.
In the long-term, real salvation for Pakistan lies in addressing its problems with environmental degradation, securing reliable energy supplies, and mending its adversarial relationship with its immediate neighbours; specifically India. The last point is key, for while the Afghan war will inevitably wind down, and with it will the primary driver of militant unrest be gone, Pakistan’s future hope of being a prosperous and well-regarded country lies in good relations and mutually beneficial commerce with its economically ascendant Indian neighbour. Most of India’s most industrialized areas in fact border Pakistan, and free trade between the two economies offers an incredible opportunity to revitalize Pakistan as a country. Indeed, many within the Pakistani establishment have come around to this realization, however belatedly, and are working to repair and rehabilitate this often fraught relationship. To this end Pakistan has recently granted Most Favoured Nation status to India as a trading partner and bilateral trade between the two countries is forecasted to nearly quadruple within two years. A significant and hopeful sign; and one more reflective of a functioning if deeply flawed state, as opposed to a failed one mired in anarchy and incapable of acting in its own interest.