COMMENT: Relevant question —Gulmina Bilal Ahmad - Friday, March 11, 2011

Source :\03\11\story_11-3-2011_pg3_2

There are those who believe that Pakistan was envisioned as an Islamic theocracy. If one subscribes to this view, then we have actually become quite a successful state

The art of intellect, I have been told, is not just to answer questions; it is sometimes reflected better by asking the relevant questions. Some will even go as far as declaring that the important distinction between being a big mouthed, word chewing pseudo-intellectual and reflecting a questioning mind is to ask a relevant question.

One of the most relevant questions I was told, while participating in an international meeting on conflict resolution and management, was this: is Pakistan a failed state or not?

There are those who firmly believe and are not shy of advocating that it is a failed state. They refer to the US-based Fund for Peace annual index of failed states on which Pakistan has been helplessly hugging the ninth place for the past three years. They refer to three blasts just this week in three different places of the country not only to support their point of view but also to pinpoint that the discussion should now be about what to do in case of Pakistan’s dismemberment and the possibility of its nuclear weapons falling into terrorist hands.

This is all that one portion of the world seems concerned about: the ‘what if’ scenario of nuclear weapons falling into terrorist hands. I struggle to ask, does a nation of 180 million mean nothing? If the world is confronted with such a scenario, they can rest assured that the nuclear weapons would be just one problem on the collective world’s worry list. The sectarian, political and sub-ethnic crises and conflicts emanating from this area would be of colossal proportions, contributing to a major world migraine.

Returning to the question of whether or not Pakistan is a failed state is, in my opinion, a complex one and one that should not be lightly dismissed. The question is certainly not an answered one.

At the ideological level, one might inquire what we are failing or succeeding at. The answer depends on whom you ask. There are those who believe that Pakistan was envisioned as an Islamic theocracy. If one subscribes to this view, then we have actually become quite a successful state — successfully translating this vision into reality over almost 64 years of Pakistan’s existence.

What makes a state a successful or a failed/failing one? There are four aspects on which states are assessed. They include, first of all, whether or not the state in question has lost physical control of its territory. In other words, according to my understanding, this criteria refers to a time when a state had control, i.e. the state’s writ was established in a geographical area but it is now lost. On this criterion, I would argue that Pakistan has actually performed well. There were areas within the geographical boundaries of the state where the state’s writ was either not established or was diluted by informal local arrangements, for instance, areas of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). FATA was and is under the draconian FCR but, for the first time since the state’s military presence in these areas, both the president and the prime minister have publicly expressed the will to extend and facilitate the role of political parties in the area and we also see progress towards including some parts in the settled areas, namely Kala Dhaka. One would either have to be a military apologist or blind to declare that the state’s writ has been established in these areas but the point that I am submitting is that at least the effort to establish it is there. However clumsy the effort, it is an effort nevertheless.

There have also been areas that for a short but painful time went out of the ambit of the state’s writ, namely Swat, but they were reclaimed, reflecting that the state is very much alive and functional at least in this case.

The second assessment criterion that is applied to assess the failure or degree of failure of a state is whether or not there is an erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions. What are these ‘collective decisions’ that have been made during the past year or so? We have the rather elusive question of the National Finance Commission Award that had been stuck in a rut for years but was resolved recently. May I add that it was resolved through inter-provincial discussions and not by announcing one’s decision about an increase and division in a press conference as, unfortunately, was done at least on one occasion in the past. There is the 18th Amendment to the constitution, which, among other things, makes the right to information and access to education a right for all citizens amongst other aspects related to provincial autonomy. This, of course, is an essential ingredient for a functional federal system, which ultimately adds to the strength of the people and hence the state.

The third aspect, which includes many sub-indicators, is whether or not a state has the ability and capacity to provide basic public services. It is on this indicator that Pakistan is doing abysmally. Whether we take electricity, natural gas or water, all are a challenge. It is as if each citizen has to create a private public service fiefdom in order to survive in the country. Those who can afford it, survive. Those who cannot either protest on the streets or die.

The last aspect is whether or not a state has the ability to interact with other states as a member of the international community. I think this is what Pakistan does better than with its local population! Pakistan is certainly no North Korea.

Assessing the question on each of these broad categories, is the labelling of Pakistan as a failed state really relevant then? Or perhaps it is a case that this quote refers to: anyone who has all the answers probably misunderstood all the questions! The question is not whether Pakistan is a failed state or not. The relevant question, perhaps, is what needs to be done about the challenges that this legitimate state is confronted with — challenges that are not all self-created.

The writer is an Islamabad-based development consultant. She can be reached at

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