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.