A growing unease

Apr 08 2011


HOW do you fix a country on the wrong track? By and large, historically, the answer in Pakistan has been: you don't really, you muddle through.

Band-aids here and there, a patchwork of half-solutions and compromises, a drawn-out process of negotiated settlements in which there are winners but no winner takes all and there are losers but no total losers — the system, as it were, bought you time and kept a lid on things.

Examples of the system at work abound. Pakistan is a low-income country, but it isn't the lowest-income country. While we haven't quite managed to economically take-off — to make the leap from a low-income country to middle-income — neither is the economic base inimical to take-off.

The system has muddled along, buying time for some eventual policymaker to figure out how to bump the economy up to the next level.

There is income inequality, poverty and malnutrition in Pakistan. And all of that is juxtaposed with the lavish lifestyles of the elite. But there is no mass-scale hunger in Pakistan, no famine. After the floods of last year, the state somehow cobbled together a response in crisis mode that prevented the widespread outbreak of disease or hunger.

The bottom doesn't fall off, but neither can the country collectively reach very high. So basic health remains a problem, as does education and achieving a moderately skilled labour force.

The agricultural market is broken, distortions rife, special interests rampant and input resources wasted. Yet somehow the sector manages to produce in quantities close enough to satisfy internal demand for staples.

Sure, the agricultural sector's productivity is low and even moderate reforms could dramatically increase output. But while we can't quite reach for the stars — the 'system' prevents even the moderate reforms that would shake up the status quo — neither are we collectively digging our graves for lack of food.

And on and on it goes. Social institutions? Barring the horribly backward areas, swathes of the population have moderate freedoms. The freedoms aren't enough to realise the utmost of human potential and independence, but neither are social institutions chronically suffocating.

And yet there is growing unease in certain quarters. People who understand the state, how it functions, how it mediates, how it distributes the gains and losses, its capacity to respond to threats and capitalise on opportunities, how the 'system' works, are a worried lot.

These are men and women who have served in various arms of the state — the political side, the bureaucratic arm, the security apparatus — and they are increasingly anxious.

The fear is this: the system which has allowed the country to muddle through for decades without quite keeling over or racing towards a glorious future, that system is inadequate for dealing with the security threat confronting the state in recent years.

It's one thing for your average white-collar worker or housewife to bemoan the terrible fate the country seems to be sliding towards. While their fear can spell doom for the popularity ratings, and longevity, of a government or regime, it doesn't mean total doom is certain.

For example, as consumers complain bitterly about inflation — and rightly so — it doesn't mean the average consumer necessarily understands how inflation works. The mechanics of monetary policy and the global oil market are for the policy wonks who can put on their thinking caps and let you know if things are really going south and how fast.

Precisely for that reason, however, the growing unease in certain quarters in the country is so alarming. People who understand the state's capacity to respond to the internal threat from militancy have examined the state's response in recent years, have looked at the threat the militants pose, have tried to grasp the mechanics of threat and response — and, almost to the last man, are not convinced the state can beat this threat. sui generis

The reasons are several. For one, Islamic militancy is . Other security threats the system has a way to contain. If Karachi slips towards anarchy, the political will to use the iron fist of the state will materialise. If bandits run amok in interior Sindh or parts of Punjab, the police can be used to rein them in. When tribes fell out with each other in Fata, the old political-agent-cum-FCR mechanism would swing into action.

But militancy requires so many 'counters': counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, counter-extremism. There are tactical and operational capabilities that have to be developed and the modalities of cooperation between law-enforcement and security agencies have to be worked out.

On a separate track, but at the same time, a strategic policy has to be articulated and a will to fight the threat has to be evidenced, by the armed forces, the political class and the public.

Working on multiple tracks to find rapid and efficient solutions is precisely what the system is not geared to produce. Our system is premised on muddling through, aiming for the least-bad outcome rather than the best-case scenario.

Analogous to what we have to do on the security front would be if within a decade the country had to be transformed into a middle-income country. Theoretically, you could map out what would need to be done, but how would you get it done?

Compounding the militancy problem is that militancy is a shifting target, morphing and changing in unpredictable ways. For the state, the challenge becomes exponentially difficult: first, learn how to develop a strategy against a new threat, and then adapt your strategy to the evolving threat.

Third, even today, nobody seriously thinks the militants can overthrow the state — paradoxically, perhaps our biggest problem.

The ones who understand the state wonder whether complacency that the militants cannot overthrow the state may be dampening the urgency to develop a strategy to fight it.

The fear? Militancy isn't standing still. The state may eventually figure out a strategy to counter it effectively, but by then the militants could be in a position to try and overthrow the state.