Not-so-failed states

The term ‘failed state’ has gained widespread currency over the past decade or so, and has been used in reference to a host of countries with widely differing histories and political trajectories. Not surprisingly, the majority of ‘failed states’ are post-colonial ones, while the right to throw the term around seems to have been arrogated by the advanced capitalist countries. That the post-colonial world may be in a fix precisely because of a long history of subjugation by the imperialist countries is not something that the ‘failed states’ literature seems willing to acknowledge.

The point of course is that the very idea of a ‘failed state’ is an ideological obfuscation that has served the imperial strategy of intervention in the affairs of supposedly sovereign nation-states. Intriguingly, many ‘failed states’ have been anything but; in many cases, the actual state apparatus has been progressively strengthened, and if anything, unrepresentative state elites have consolidated themselves whilst undermining organic social and political processes that would ostensibly make the state accountable.

Amongst the more obvious examples of such imperialist-inspired ‘failed states’ is Pakistan. Pakistan’s strategic location has meant that it has found itself wedded to America geo-political interests for long periods in the post WWII era, most notably during the Afghan War in the 1980s and – since the events of September 11 2001 – more recently as one of the key members of the ‘coalition of the willing’. Over the past five years, Pakistan’s already severely compromised political process has been undermined further. The US has played a crucial role in exacerbating an already dire situation.

As many familiar with Pakistan are aware, the military rules the roost in this country. A legacy of the British Raj coupled with the peculiar conditions of the country’s creation, military dominance of state affairs must be considered in all its complexity. As Chomsky’s friend and mercurial Pakistani academic-activist Eqbal Ahmad eloquently asserted, the British colonial state was very deliberate in patronizing powerful propertied classes that acted as intermediaries between the state and the people. The Pakistani state has done likewise, and the military (alongwith the civil bureaucracy which started off the stronger of the two but is now definitively the military’s junior partner) is now well practiced in the art of coercing and coopting the mainstream political parties that do not even represent the interests of the majority of people, yet remain the only mass political organizations that survive in the country. The implication is that it is important to qualify the claim that the colonial state was essentially an administrative one by recognizing that it delved quite knowingly and manipulatively into the political sphere, as its post-colonial successor continues to do.

Since the Musharraf coup of October 1999, the military’s manipulation of mainstream politics has breached new ground. Like all of his predecessor’s before him, General Musharraf too triumphantly proclaimed that he would rid Pakistan of its corrupt politicians and restore order, the nation’s sovereignty, and internal peace. Yet in Musharraf’s first cabinet – named only a few days after his takeover – were at least 3 men who were on the military government’s official exit control list (ECL) on account of various charges of fraud and embezzlement. Over the next 6 years the state’s  intelligence agencies have engineered the worst kind of ‘horse-trading’ with the result that even more politicians initially targeted by the military regime for being corrupt and illegitimate have joined the Musharraf fold.

None of this should be particularly surprising. The state’s posture towards the political process has always been unforgiving, with the result that factionalism – already a problem in the Pakistan areas prior to partition in 1947 – has been exacerbated and mainstream politics has basically evolved into a competition over unashamedly catering to the oligarchy’s self-defined ‘greater national interest’. Hence all political parties reinforce the ‘sacred cows’ of the state ideology including the imperatives of defence against big brother India, the rather perverse notion that Pakistan’s ‘Islamic’ bomb needs to be protected at all costs, and the myth of indivisible sovereignty. This is not to suggest that overt confrontation between political parties and the military has and does not take place, but that there have been virtually no instances when such confrontations have extended to the basic tenets of Pakistani nationhood.

In any case, as in the past, the practice of jumping ship to the ‘king’s party’ has become a virtue during Musharraf’s rule. All election processes, including Musharraf’s own presidential referendum in April 2002, have been severely compromised. The opposition political parties continue to be involved in under-the-table discussions with the military, none willing and/or able to truly mount a challenge to the military’s dominance. And of course throughout this pitiful episode, the US has done its best to promote the cause of democracy in the country.

When Musharraf first came to power, he was far from welcomed into office by the Clinton administration. However, it is a misnomer to suggest that he was an international pariah. US geo-strategic interests in West and Central Asia, even if they did not mandate the kind of cushy treatment of Pakistan in the late 1990s as it had received in the 1980s, still demanded some cooperation with the Pakistani military. However, the situation turned dramatically following the attacks of September 11th and the Bush administration’s subsequent decision to invade Afghanistan.

Pakistan has received more bilateral and multilateral aid over the past 5 years than in any other comparable period of its history. Musharraf’s devolution of power plan was hailed as a major step towards the democratization of politics in the country. The majority of USAID-speak civil society welcomed the initiative and the large doses of donor monies to promote the process with open arms. Musharraf has been widely hailed as a miracle man, willing to take the difficult step of cutting off the Pakistani military’s ties with its erstwhile Islamic militant allies. However in more recent times the devolution plan has been widely acknowledged to be a stunt very similar to those undertaken by Musharraf’s predecessors Ayub Khan and Zia ul Haq to consolidate illegitimate military rule, while there is considerable uneasiness in many policy circles in Washington over just how much Musharraf has undone the military’s links to the religious right.

Yet the patronage of Musharraf continues. In spite of the recent doubts that have been raised by various observers in the imperialist countries, the international financial institutions (IFIs) continue to sign huge agreements with the present government; the World Bank’s recently announced 3-year Country Assistance Strategy (CAS) promised Pakistan upwards of US$ 6 billion. After considerable doubts over the past 3 years, a multi-billion dollar Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan gas pipeline project backed by the ADB is back on track. Perhaps most importantly, the US seems to be willing to accept that Musharraf will remain in charge following the upcoming general election (if it resembles anything of the sort) in 2007.

It is a testament to the complete lack of autonomy of the mainstream political parties in Pakistan that they tend to rely on American support for their periodic return to the seat of government rather than on the Pakistani people. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League – N (PML-N), the parties of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif respectively – both prime ministers twice over the decade of the 1990s – have recently concluded a so-called Charter of Democracy, in which both leaders and their parties have vowed not to invite army takeovers as they have done in the past, and instead to work collectively towards the establishment of an independent political process. Yet the document remains uncritical of the ‘sacred cows’ mentioned above, and fails even to discuss the ongoing military operations in Waziristan and Baluchistan, both extremely unpopular and at least partially being conducted to placate larger imperialist designs in the greater West Asian arena.

Further, both parties and their leaders have unashamedly courted the US in recent times, ostensibly to induce greater US pressure on Musharraf to move towards ‘democracy’, to whatever extent the term is accurate.  Recent statements by Condi Rice & co. suggest that the US is interested in moving Musharraf towards a slightly less blatant cover for his rule, and there is every reason to believe that either the PPP or the PML-N or both will feature heavily in any such ‘new’ dispensation. If the US sponsors even a partial reconciliation between Musharraf and his sworn enemies, the political process will be dealt a further body blow, for two related reasons.

First, the myth of the army as saviour of the country has been steadily eroded in the almost 7 years that Musharraf has been in power. While this does not represent the first occasion that the army has fallen from grace in the public imagination, there is a marked difference in the widespread condemnation to which the army is subjected amongst the general public at the present time, and previous periods of public criticism. In particular, the army’s increasingly bloated corporate empire has brought it into direct conflict with ordinary Pakistanis, and this has once and for all undermined the public perception of the army. Given this state of affairs, which represents major progress in a country that has been defined by the ideological stranglehold of the armed forces, a reversion to a heavily compromised political dispensation in which the major political parties are coopted would be a major setback. Inevitably, the army would retreat into the background to pull strings and would reemerge a few years later to displace thoroughly discredited politicians. This situation repeated itself 4 times over the decade of the 1990s, and would not be a surprising recurrence if the PPP and PML-N rejoin the government in any way.

Second, and more obviously, the political process will once again be held hostage to the engineering of imperialism, which has been a consistent feature in Pakistani politics virtually since the country’s inception. To the extent then that democracy will take root in Pakistan, it will arguably be worse than the kind that presently exists, and no different than the democracy on show in Iraq, Afghanistan, or any of the other many countries in which the US has flayed its ‘democracy promotion’ agenda.

If, however, the mainstream parties confront the military junta, things will look up for Pakistan and its long-suffering political process. In any case, over the past couple of years, the US has intensified its ‘democracy promotion’ shenanigans through its much publicized ‘civil society strengthening’ initiatives. Most notably, USAID is pouring money into the education sector so as to counter the proliferation of madrassahs – or religious schools – which it perceives to be the fountainhead of radical Islam. Conveniently, USAID’s own promotion of madrassahs throughout the Afghan War of the 1980s has been forgotten. In general, both US and other bilateral aid from the first world has been channeled to NGOs that have been complicit with the military government’s ‘good governance’ agenda.

Needless to say, neither the army nor US imperialism can be counted on to genuinely break with the oligarchic system of rule that prevails in Pakistan. The weakness of political and social organizations that are autonomous of the state, as well as the almost total absence of a critical intellectual culture, are undoubtedly the country’s most glaring problems. And without the regeneration of these organic bases, politics will continue to be a merry-go-round of the state, propertied classes and imperialism. Perhaps the most important initial step in this regeneration is to expose the role that the US has played in transforming Pakistan from indispensable ally through the 1980s, into a ‘failed state’ in the 1990s, back into an indispensable ally presently, and surely soon to revert to the category of ‘failed state’. It is of course a well-established fact that the majority of Pakistanis are deeply indignant of the US and its policies, but for the most part this indignation is rooted in a belief that Muslims are the target. Such a perception suits Musharraf and the Right ever so well, and as with any other Muslim-majority state, in Pakistan too it is imperative that the myth of Islam vs. the west is debunked lest the forces of reaction will continue to grow stronger.


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