But where’s the state

Indian Express, March 1, 2007

Developments of the last fortnight can be seen as a sort of balance sheet reflecting the strengths and weaknesses of the Pakistani state. Pakistan successfully tested the latest version of its long-range nuclear-capable missile, Shaheen II. It has the capability to hit major cities in India, according to Pakistan’s military. For those who measure Pakistan’s success in terms of a military balance against India, this addition to Pakistan’s arsenal is a sign of the country’s expanding strength.

Other events, however, indicate that Pakistan’s supposed ability to externally project its power is not matched with the potency of an effective state at home. Up to 17 people, including a senior civil judge, were killed and 30 wounded in a powerful suicide bombing in the Quetta district courts compound on February 17. The next day, two children were killed and three security force personnel seriously injured in two landmine explosions in Balochistan. The same day, at least 67 people were killed and over 50 wounded in a fire that swept through two coaches of the India-Pakistan Samjhauta Express. In the relatively sleepy central Punjab town of Cheechawatni, three suspected militants were killed when a bomb they were carrying on a bicycle accidentally exploded.

On February 20 an Islamist “fanatic” shot and killed the Punjab provincial Social Welfare Minister Zile Huma Usman in an open court in Gujranwala. The attacker said he wanted to punish the woman minister for not covering her face, which he considers obligatory in his interpretation of Islam’s concept of hijab.

A couple of days later, at least seven people were seriously injured in two separate landmine explosions in Balochistan while unknown assailants blew up a gas pipeline in the restive province. Several hundred female students from an Islamic seminary in the centre of Islamabad have been holed up for the last month inside a public library, and their supporters have threatened a campaign of suicide bombings if forcibly evicted from the occupied library.

Five private English medium schools providing co-education in Peshawar were told that suicide bombers might target co-education private schools. A school for girls in Mardan was warned that its building would be bombed if teachers and students did not start observing hijab or wearing veils. In other news with bad implications, an editor of an Urdu daily, Sohail Qalander, and his friend, Mohammad Niaz, managed to escape from captors who had kidnapped them almost two months ago. Their kidnappers demanded the journalists “stop writing against smugglers, kidnappers and mafia groups.”

The negative news stories of the last fifteen days affirm what official Pakistan refuses to acknowledge, the gradual weakening of the Pakistani state. Notwithstanding the possession of nuclear weapons and missiles, Pakistan is far from being an effective state. In fact, in the process of building extensive military capabilities, Pakistan’s successive rulers have allowed the degradation of essential internal attributes of statehood.

An important attribute of a state is its ability to maintain monopoly, or at least the preponderance, of public coercion. The proliferation of insurgents, militias, mafiosi and high ordinary criminality reflect the state’s weakness in this key area.

Discussions of Pakistan’s politics are almost always about personalities rather than the issues. As the Pakistani state falters, it is time not to talk only in terms of whether one individual is better for the country or another. It is time to identify where the Pakistani state has lost its direction.

A modern state is distinguished by impersonal rule. Personalisation, corruption, familial dominance and re-tribalisation are considered signs of weakening of the state. Failures of rule of law, weak judiciaries, failures of regulation and the dominance of a lawless executive, coupled with the failure to maintain public goods (education, environment, public health, electricity and water supply) are all considered indicators of state failure. Autonomists, secessionists, irredentists and vacuum fillers emerge wherever the dimensions of being a state begin to weaken.

Instead of focusing all their energies on maintaining military power, Pakistan’s rulers must recognise the weakening of essential qualities of being a state. Adherence to the constitution, restoration of rule of law, normal contestation for power, and the rebuilding of civilian institutions are essential if Pakistan is to avoid a slide into anarchy.