From Indo-Pak to Af-Pak

By Ibn-e Eusuf

I often think about the transformation from Indo-Pak to Af-Pak – from being part of a civilization to being part of a problem.

Nothing more needs be said except that the transformation was not accidental; it was deliberately engineered and therefore involved winners and losers. I will leave readers to mull over who won and who lost in the process.

I wish to focus in this essay not on the past but on the future, on the nature of the problem represented by this Af-Pak pairing. What exactly is it that is common to Afghanistan and Pakistan and what does it mean for the people living in the two countries?

I owe the analysis on which this essay rests to a coffee house discussion on Pakistan with a friend; the extension to Af-Pak is mine and I am open to being challenged on the generalizations.

The argument rests on the uniqueness of the present leadership in the two countries – the fact that it always has half a foot out of the door.

Let me elaborate. The leaders of the major political parties in Pakistan, like the leadership in Afghanistan, all have safe havens abroad; some even conduct their politics by megaphone from those safe havens. In all probability, they have the bulk of their capital assets abroad; only funds for running expenses are retained within the countries. And this model has trickled down the ruling hierarchy.

This kind of one-foot-out-the-door leadership has a very different incentive structure from one that thinks it will sink or swim with the country. The latter, depending on its competence, is committed within its term in office to the development of the country and to improving the national share in the global economy – take India, China, and Brazil as examples.

The former lives on the margin; every extra day in power means extra resources extracted to be added to the assets abroad. It impoverishes the country to enrich itself, prepared all the time to cut and run when the day arrives on which the game finally comes to an end.

No amount of exhortation to such regimes – to avoid turning their countries into failed states, focus on good governance, end corruption, use aid effectively, improve national competitiveness, increase tax collections, provide services to citizens – would have any impact. Such regimes become masters at the art of playing for time with all kinds of excuses and promises but with no intention of acting on them – Karzai is the perfect illustration.

So anyone who expects the countries to develop in such a scenario is living in a fools paradise – the leaderships are timing the market, planning to get out before it hits the bottom. And if they leave behind failed states, so be it.

This unique leadership gives rise, in turn, to a unique opposition. It is not as if the Democrats were being challenged by the Republicans or the Congress by the BJP, a model in which the strategies differ but the global ambitions remain the same.

In Af-Pak, the forces challenging the ruling groups (think of the Taliban and their sympathizers) don’t really care if the states they hope to inherit are failed states. And they are not really averse to destroying the country in order to take it over because they intend to start from scratch anyway to recreate the pure embodiment of their imagination.

They are not bothered about global integration because they don’t need anything from the global economy. They don’t consume global consumer products, don’t bank abroad, travel on buses if not on foot, don’t need air-conditioning, can sleep in the open and survive on lentils if need be. And whatever they do need from abroad, they believe can be smuggled.

There is some exaggeration in the characterization of the two sides but only enough to depict the stark contrasts.

This is what is common to the situations of Afghanistan and Pakistan today. This is the essence of the Af-Pak problem. Everything else stems from that.

It is a far cry from the worries of civilization and lost heritage – they can go the way of the Bamiyan Buddhas. The citizens of the two countries, squeezed between a kleptocratic ‘liberal’ ‘secular’ ruling elite and an austere ‘fundamentalist’ ‘puritan’ challenge, barely have enough room or time left to raise their thinking caps to their heads.


  • Vinod
    Posted at 07:31h, 12 February Reply

    These characterizations make for pretty good starting point in thinking about the future of these countries. As the countries get impoverished and people’s lives start to match those of the fundamentalist variety they are going to start choosing them as their leaders.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 13:59h, 12 February Reply

    I think it is gross simplification of reality. Leaders in India, Pakistan or Afghanistan are same. Look at Manmohan Singh, this fellow has achieved almost all his desires by being at the right place at the right time. His reputation as liberalizer is also fake, the real one was Narshimha Rao, who dismantled license raj. Any other average individual at that ripe age would have cared to guard that reputation by putting his foot down on unreasonable demands but he succumbs to such demands meekly. The point is Leaders in these regions are same but the ground realities are different therefore different responses from them.

    • Ibn-e Eusuf
      Posted at 16:21h, 12 February

      Anil: Leaders are indeed the same but their incentives can become quite different depending on the context. The same salesperson will behave very differently depending on whether he is paid by the day or by units sold. This is what you also say at the end. We are not interested in the character of the leaders but on the outcomes for the countries.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 15:51h, 19 February

      Actually character of leader is important. We have numerous examples in the subcontinent where people, when recognizing smallest hope, have backed such leaders with their full weight. It is the leaders who failed them. Bal Thakre, Lalu Yadav, NTR, Jaylalitha, Rajiv Gandhi etc in India, Benazir, Nawaz Sharief in Pakistan are examples of leaders who were given dictator like power by the people. They could purge anyone in the party with impunity but they all chose to follow the path of least resistance.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:50h, 19 February

      Anil: In my view there are two distinct models of governance. There is the old model in which people invest a leader with complete power and hope that it would be used in their interest. This rarely ever works and, in addition, it gets very difficult to remove the leaders who do not deliver.

      The second, modern method is based on the realization that the character of a leader is too arbitrary an attribute to be the keystone of governance. Instead institutional mechanisms are employed to ensure accountability of leaders and to enable them to be removed according to some agreed upon process.

      This is the difference between the monarchical/dictatorial and the representative models of governance. The latter doesn’t always work perfectly but at least it prevents one bad leader from sinking the entire ship. For example, no one has to worry about the character of the prime minsiter in Great Britain,

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 06:54h, 20 February

      You are missing the point I am making. It is not about the model of governance but irrespective of model of governance, enormous backing of people makes these leaders de facto dictators. The point is, if Sonia Gandhi wants to purge the top leadership of the congress she can do so without much difficulty but does she have the will to do so or Jaylalitha or Mayavati or Bal Thakre? Clearly fake leaders are foisted on public.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 03:21h, 22 February

      Anil: I agree that this can be so. My argument was that this is not irrespective of the model of governance. In a mature democracy, it is very difficult (though not impossible) to foist a fake leader on the public who goes on to become a dictator. If Sonia Gandhi is acting in that manner, the implication should be to examine what in the Indian model of democracy is allowing it to happen.

      There is an interesting extension here that we can talk about. In my view, the American system is tending away from a textbook democracy and towards one where fake leaders can be foisted on the public. This is because power is shifting away from people to corporations and it is the money that is speaking loudly turning the system into a version of oligarchy. Recall Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex way back in the 1950s. The larger theoretical point to keep in view is that the textbook model of democracy that we use as a mental reference dates from the time when there were no large corporations. The deciding factor was the individual citizen – it was possible in that context to talk of a government of the people and by the people. That is no longer the case in the US.

  • AG
    Posted at 01:56h, 19 February Reply

    “Liberal, secular elite” — I won’t describe Karzai or those around him as such. The liberal secular elite are so afraid of running afoul of the Islamists/traditionalists that they won’t even field a party–instead they are happy with whatever little power they have. By the way, don’t be fooled by suites and ties and Washington friendly platitudes of democracy and republicanism.

    • Ibn-e Eusuf
      Posted at 02:03h, 19 February

      AG: That is why “liberal, secular elite” was in quotes – the labels we use unthinkingly can fool us.

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