A Failed State of Understanding

Indian Express, May 12, 2006

Official Pakistan has reacted angrily, as it always does, to two recent suggestions that the situation in the country might not be as rosy as painted by General Musharraf and his cohorts. Pakistan was rated as ninth on the 2006 Failed States Index developed by the U.S. Non-governmental Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy magazine. Instead of understanding the index, and why Pakistan’s rating on it was high, several Pakistanis in government responded with patriotic indignation.

The Failed States Index was pooh-poohed as yet another attempt to denigrate Pakistan, a project attributed to the nation’s real and imaginary enemies around the world. More recently, comments in Kabul by the US State Department Coordinator for counter-terrorism Henry Crumpton, suggesting that Pakistan was not doing enough in the search for Osama bin Laden, have invited the ire of those who see criticism as a part of sinister conspiracies.

The Failed States Index (FSI) is an academic exercise that started last year and will probably go on to become an annual feature. Like many other similar academic exercises in the United States, it is not Pakistan-specific and is designed as an analytical tool rather than as simplistic political commentary.

It is not the case that someone set out to insult Pakistan by describing it as a potentially failing state. An academic, in this case Dr. Pauline H. Baker, devised a general criteria for what causes a state to fail and — after applying it to 148 countries — listed those that scored higher than others on the basis of the criteria.

One possible analogy is a medical doctor’s list of risk factors for an individual’s health. Based on objective criteria, a doctor might say that someone who overeats, drinks heavily and smokes regularly is most likely to get a heart attack. There are always some people who survive the risk factors better or longer than others. But the doctors would not be wrong in listing threats to a person’s health and saying that someone more exposed to the risk factors is in danger.

According to the Fund for Peace website, the FSI is based on the Conflict Assessment System Tool (CAST) — “a comprehensive methodology for early warning and assessment of internal conflicts.” The purpose of CAST and FSI is to rate “indicators of state failure that drive conflict.” Using social, economic and political indicators, CAST provides “a rating system for trend analysis that can track a conflict over time.”

The Index’s political indicators are where Pakistan’s score rose enough to merit a higher rating as a potentially failed state. These indicators include Criminalization and/or Delegitimization of the State; Progressive Deterioration of Public Services; Suspension or Arbitrary Application of the Rule of Law and Widespread Violation of Human Rights; Security Apparatus Operates as a “State Within a State”; Rise of Factionalized Elites and Intervention of Other States or External Political Actors.

Instead of rejecting the Failed States Index as an attack on Pakistan, government officials and Pakistani analysts alike should pay attention to its message. Threats to the country’s long-term health should not be dismissed out of a desire for feeling good that all is well.

Outside observers and researchers have warned of Pakistan’s multiple crises in the past and the country has survived many predictions of doom. In that sense, the country is like the lucky person who has managed to avoid cancer or heart disease despite smoking heavily. But good luck is not a substitute for good policy.

Official Pakistan is used to rejecting out of hand scholarly research such as the Failed States Index. It is remarks such as those by Crumpton that particularly irk Islamabad. Since 9/11, General Musharraf’s unrepresentative military regime has sought legitimacy in the eyes of international public opinion on grounds of its usefulness in the U.S.-led war against terrorism.

When an American official deviates from the script that praises Pakistan as a critical U.S. ally, the regime feels particularly embarrassed. It feels its source of international legitimacy is under attack.

But General Musharraf and his associates, or their successors, will some day have to deal with the substantive threats to Pakistan, the kind that bother formulators of the Failed States Index. Living in denial and emphasizing only one part of Pakistan’s complex reality will not help deal with major faultlines and long-term dangers.

Taking the smoking and health risk analogy one step further, one can dismissive smoker’s cough as insignificant but the greater health risks remain, whether or not someone talks about them.