Yet Another Blind Spot in the Afpak Analysis?

Saskia Sassen and Razi Ahmed

Pakistan's civil society organizations fighting state failure are at risk of being written out of the AFPAK script. The damaging information about collaboration with the Taliban in the just-released Wikileaks, along with the Foreign Policy ranking of Pakistan as the 10th worst failed state now dominate the general view of the country. Our concern here is not with these findings. We want to raise an alarm about the added risk of forgetting and overlooking the many civil society organizations and democratizing forces inside the state precisely at a time when they need recognition and support from the international community.

Our point is illustrated by British Prime Minister David Cameron, who during his current trip to India, basically reduced Pakistan to a country "promoting terror." Besides burying the complicated relationship between Pakistan and the US, this is the kind of statement that brushes aside and undermines the progressive and democratizing forces fighting state-failure.

The concept of state failure is applied with conviction to a very large number of states, almost half of the countries in the world. In many cases it is warranted. Particular regions of Somalia come to mind. But for dozens of the countries ranked as failed states, matters are more ambiguous. Several of the twelve criteria used are sufficiently ambiguous as to invite questions about the usefulness of the failed-state concept beyond the most extreme cases. According to some of these criteria, the US, and possibly other democracies, could actually qualify as a failed state, albeit it a low ranking one, a thought that is shocking to many.

The really bad aspect in the case of Pakistan's ranking as one of the worst failed states is that it robs the country's often courageous civil society struggles from international support and visibility precisely when they need it most. This is becoming yet another blind spot in the dominant way of seeing the larger AFPAK region.

Pakistan's civil society is engaged in diverse activities, from struggles to protect the constitution to organizations helping the internally displaced due to war. Some of these organizations at times work with the state in Pakistan, and others are its strongest critics. Both provide the impetus for progressive and democratizing forces to contain state failure.
Perhaps these contradictions tell us something about the limits of the failed-state designation, or, at least, that it should be used with greater care. For instance, is state failure on critical dimensions the same as being a failed-state? State failures abound, including in well-established democracies in what are considered highly developed countries. And they of course, also abound in democracies under construction, such as Pakistan.

A few words on the Index. Two of the twelve criteria, refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), and delegitimization of the state, are major factors in Pakistan's ranking. Pakistan recently faced one of the largest internal displacements due to the military decision to move into Buner and the Swat valley. This decision would not have happened if the US were not involved in its war in the region. But the Index does not allow us to capture this not-so-minor point. The UN estimates 2.7 million persons were displaced from their homes. These are the elements of a humanitarian crisis. It was civil society organizations along with donor agencies that moved swiftly into action, and that made all the difference in enabling 1.6 million persons to return to their homes within less than a year. While it is difficult to assess, the US government may not have been as successful proportionally with resettling the so-called (erroneously) Katrina-displaced people, far fewer in numbers and after many more years.

In fact this alliance between civil society and state is even more complex and richer in its potential. Arguably, the spark for operations against militants in Swat also came from some sectors of Pakistan's civil society, which rallied and roused reluctant parliamentarians --who favored peace deals with militants-- to fight the Taliban, especially in the wake of an odious video released nationally by a rights activist showing Taliban flagellating a woman in a public square. Not only did this generate a national outcry in Pakistan, but it also set the momentum for legitimizing the state's integrity. The Index of failed states cannot capture these dynamic interactions and negotiations inside the state and between the state and civil society.

Our intention in highlighting these democratizing forces is not to deny state failure in Pakistan. It is rather, to bring visibility to civil society actors and their potential to democratize the state, and, in fact, to contain and limit state failure. Pakistan has its share of human rights violations, another criterion of the FSI. Human rights violations are not exclusive to "failed states," as recent history has once again made all too clear. Pakistan's abysmal practices in human rights should not cloud the fact that its independent and powerful Human Rights Commission does not shy away from pointing out cases of abuse at the hands of army, feudal landlords, or politicians themselves. This is in contrast with an internationally admired country such as the UAE, with a dismal record in its treatment of immigrant workers, including immigrant children.

There are many other, and very diverse, instances where state and society in Pakistan have shown a willingness to work together. This is the case with the crisis unleashed by the massive 7.6 magnitude earthquake in 2005. A very different case is that of Pakistan's celebrated philanthropist Abdus Sattar Edhi who runs one of the world's largest private ambulance services.

The failed-state designation includes as a critical component the failure of a state to work diplomatically with other states. In the case of Pakistan, its relation to India is, clearly, crucial. While talks between Pakistan and India have been ceremonial at best, various civil society organizations in each country are struggling to prevent the hawks on either side from shaping the troubled relation. One such enterprise for spearheading peace comes from the two top media-houses in each country, who are partnering to build a parallel framework to state-diplomacy. This is part of a longer history of such attempts. And this history includes work by the state. In 1989, Benazir Bhutto and Rajiv Gandhi, meeting in Islamabad, made an agreement to proscribe use of first force and set up the first prime ministerial hotline between the two countries. In 1999 Nawaz Sharif and Atal Vajpayee's signed the Lahore Declaration, and more recently, in the post-Mumbai carnage, President Zardari issued a no-first strike policy in 2008. Throughout the highs and lows in this history of talks and meetings, Pakistani rights groups and media houses have relentlessly sought to revive peace constituencies to counter entrenched India-centric security fears and to influence political leaders.

These cases, which rebut elements of the Failed States Index, are not aimed at giving Pakistan a better score. Pakistan is a troubled country. It is rather to ask what does the world gain from an Index that makes invisible Pakistan's vibrant and diverse civil society. It does not help the hard work by civil society and some sectors of the state to savage a country reeling from years of wrong priorities that favored military defense over human capital.

Razi Ahmed is a graduate student in Energy Studies at Columbia who has written OP-EDs for Dawn, Pakistan's leading English daily; Saskia Sassen is the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology and a member of the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University (, and author most recently of Territory, Authority, Rights (Princeton 2008)