Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Difference Between A Weak Government And A Weak State

One of the things that has bothered me about Western coverage of Pakistan since Zardari's election and, in particular, since the Bombay attacks a few weeks ago, is the conflation of two very different terms: a weak government, and a weak state.

For example, here is the New York Times editorial last week:
Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, must face up to his country’s involvement — whether official or nearly so. We know his new civilian government is weak, and he may not be able to accede to New Delhi’s demands that all suspects be turned over to India for prosecution.
I don't know who the "we" in that statement is - I suppose it refers to the NYT's editorial board - but "we" happen to be wrong.

Asif Zardari's civilian government is not weak. To the contrary, he is the single strongest civilian leader of this country since his father-in-law, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. He is arguably more powerful than even President Zia-ul-Haq was at his peak, and he is certainly more powerful than Musharraf was at his. To see why, we need to delve into Pakistan's internal political structure.

Historically, there have been three major power brokers within Pakistan's political, if not geographical, space. First and foremost is the Army. For reasons too complicated to get into at this point - though the interested reader should consult Ayesha Jalal's fantastic book on the subject - the military exerts enormous influence in Pakistan. The second major power broker is what can be broadly construed as the "business and feudal community". The third is Uncle Sam.

A relatively recent addition to this set of players that matter is what is commonly referred to as "civil society", though in Pakistan's case it would be more accurate to call this new group "the media and the lawyers". This group set off a chain of events in March 2007 that ultimately resulted in Musharraf's resignation as President in the summer of 2008.

So we have four groups that matter in Pakistan; the discerning reader will have noticed, I am sure, that I did not include the religious right (which is good for a few Friday sermons and Danish cartoon protests but not much else), mainstream political parties (generally devoid of souls or consciences), or the middle and lower classes (whose political allegiances almost always full into predictable ethnic and provincial breakdowns, thus affording them little credibility of desertion). Where does Zardari stand with each of these groups?

Let's start with the military. The Army under Asfhaq Kayani has shown an increasing willingness to step into the background on political issues, and allow greater subordination to civilians. Whether this is a tactical or strategic move is unclear - at least to me - but the point remains: Kayani has given Zardari more leeway than any General has given any civilian leader I can recall. Is the military completely subservient? No, of course not - and it would be foolish to expect it to be. But baby steps are being taken.

The second and third are no-brainers. Zardari is of the business and feudal community. He is one of them, and speaks their language. Uncle Sam is also willing to give him a chance, mainly because (a) there seems to be military-fatigue in D.C. and (b) Zardari does everything asked of him.

What about the fourth? This process has been completely hidden from view for those who don't pay attention to Pakistani politics on a daily basis, but Zardari's neutralization of the lawyers and their political representatives as been a political masterstroke. I can't even recall the last time someone mentioned the words "Iftikhar Chaudhry". Whether or not you countenence the means or the ends of Zardari's political acumen, there is no doubting his adroitness on these issues. Dude can play this game.

So, in a very basic and fundamental way, Zardari's government is not weak. It is in fact very strong. He is faced with a pliant judiciary, a patient military, a supportive U.S., and a majority in parliament.

The Pakistani state, on the other hand, is embarassingly weak. State strength refers to the amount of legitimate control the state exercises on its territory. The war against the Taliban in the north west of the country tells you all you need to know on that front. One can also consider Pakistan's abysmal tax-to-GDP ratio, a traditional marker of state strength in the poli sci literature because it gets at the ability of agents of the state to coerce citizens (for those interested, this article by Evan Lieberman explores the causes of a variation in the ability to collect taxes in South Africa and Brazil). Simply put, if the state can't establish it's writ in meaningful ways on the territory it purports to control, then it is a weak state. Pakistan falls under this category.

But please don't confuse Pakistan being weak for Zardari or his government being weak. They are separate and distinct analytical propositions, and should be treated as such.


bubs said...

Ahsan: While the Zardari government may not be the weakest in our history, I would argue that it is still extremely weak. The murder of Major General Faisal Alavi a few weeks ago after he sent Kayani a letter detailing army connections with the militants. While there is no proof that the army was responsible for this, just the fact that everyone think it is is evidence of the government's weakness.

Also, take a look at this NYT story on the Jamaatud Dawa crackdown ( Now, just that the fact that the government has been able to take even this light a measure shows that it is stronger than previous democratically elected governments, but still weak in absolute terms.

Add to that the government's abrupt about-turn on sending the ISI chief to India and the reversal on the decision to place the ISI under the Interior Ministry and definitely get a weak government.

Ahsan said...


Maybe my definition is too circumscribed, but my understanding of a "weak government" is one that faces many (serious) challenges to its hold on power. I see no such challenges for Zardari and the PPP at present. And the point I was trying to make in the post was that the preceding sentence could not have been used for many of our leaders in the past.

As for the army stuff, I thought it was one of the dumbest possible ideas to (a) try to dismember the ISI at one fell swoop and (b) to send the head of the ISI to India without actually asking the Army first. Just because the Zardari led PPP govt is powerful does not mean it can suddenly erase 60 years of history. These things have to managed carefully and slowly.

As it stands, the botched Shuja Pasha move is more emblematic of military-civil relations than government power. Many may consider that a spurious distinction but I do not, especially since the Army does not seem serious, at present, about acquiring said power.

AKS said...

@ Bubs

I'm not sure how Maj. Gen. Alavi's highlights the governments weakness. Lets assume that the Army was involved, but that doesn't mean that the civilian leadership wasn't taken into confidence? I can picture Rehman Malik and Asif Zardari assenting to an extra judicial killing in a heart beat.

"... just the fact that everyone think it is is evidence of the government's weakness."


Isn't it possible that Pakistanis, who are programmed to believe that the 'agencies' and the army are responsible for everything, will apportion blame to those actors, without even assessing whether a) non-state actors (including rogue elements in the army) were involved or b) the civilian leadership knew about it?

@ Ahsan

"As for the army stuff, I thought it was one of the dumbest possible ideas to (a) try to dismember the ISI at one fell swoop and (b) to send the head of the ISI to India without actually asking the Army first."

While Zardari may have been unsuccessful, it speaks volumes that he was able to even contemplate taking such measures and then wasn't even seriosuly reprimanded.

Zardari is securely allied with all the forces historically needed to rule Pakistan, but its becoming apparent that not everyone is obeying their rules and they're having a tough time establishing their writ.

The only historical examples we have are the Baluchistan Liberation Army and maybe the MQM (though I would think they posed a challenge to the Government rather than the state).

It was easier to take an action against the BLA because 1)there weren't too many of them, 2) they're Baluchis and no one really cared about them anyway, 3) evidence of India's involvement (fabricated or otherwise) made things much easier and 4) they're feudal / tribal and the government could co-opt them (and their structure) into the state by addressing some of their grievances.

The situation we have now is much more problematic and, as you correctly point out, highlights the weakness of the state and the challenges it faces.

How do you bring the Taliban and other Jihadis into the fold of the state? You can't give them a stake in the government because their existence is justified by their challenge to the feudal / tribal structure, the business community and Uncle Sam. And now even the army.

One last thing:

I certainly don't think the government is weak, but its not like other civilian governments of the past. Musharraf's attempt at quasi civilian rule plus Zardari's penchant for centralised power means that the parliament has been weakened. Of the three most visible faces in the current government, i.e. Zardari, Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Rehman Malik, only one was elected by the people.

the.serial.chiller said...

A very insightful and well written piece!

supersizeme said...

brilliant piece, i know i'll be brandishing this about in the face of many zardari-haters, haha!
granted no one has a crystal ball at the ready but he HAS performed adequately so far with the challenges him and his govt. have faced and proved very diplomatic. we can't go expecting miracles overnight, the best we can hope for is this sort of political 'snooze' mode... to calm things down and let the army, govt and civilians get their bearings together?

Ahsan said...

The Serial Chiller:

Thanks for that.


I hope you did not read this post as an endorsement of Zardari, which is the feeling I'm getting from your comment. I was dealing with an empirical question, not a normative one.

supersizeme said...

honestly speaking; i knew you weren't so black and white about it, but then i like to interpret even the minutest of 'lifts' in the new government's direction as fully-fledged zardari endorsements, oops my bad!

bubs said...

Ahsan: I would agree that both were extremely stupid ideas but a strong government would be able to carry out its policies no matter how stupid. I also don't think the army wants to acquire power right now. But I do think it is possible, maybe even probable, that the army, through the ISI, will try to destablise and eventually topple the government the way they did with the first Benazir government. Of course, there is little evidence to back this up right now. More of a hunch.

AKS: I just don't see any reason for the civilian government to support Alavi's assassination, while I can think of many good reasons why the army would kill him. Which is why I believe that even if the civilian government agreed to it, it is only because they are too weak to stand up to the army.

Rabia said...

One problem is that you are making the assumption that the army is fully behind Kayani and the ISI is fully behind Pasha, when there seem to be pretty deep divisions within the highest levels of the army.

Ahsan said...


That's a fair point.

AKS said...

@ bubs

"... but a strong government would be able to carry out its policies no matter how stupid."

I think this would hold true if the army was subordinate to the civilian government rather than an integral and powerful part of the 'government', which in the case of Pakistan it is.

"... it is only because they are too weak to stand up to the army."

Fair point, and probably the most logical conclusion. It is though possible that there's a feeling of 'we're in this together' amongst the major players, and Alavi outing senior officers wouldn't benefit anyone. Or maybe they just made a deal, you get Alavi, Zardari gets another sugar mill?

@ Ahsan

An interesting question that arises is why the hell does everyone, certainly everyone abroad and many right here, think that the government is weak? What will it take for them to understand that it is the state that is weak? I am going to kill the next person who uses the statement: "the agencies did it."

ali said...

great article ahsan. a lot of much needed breakdown and clarification.

ali said...

and the ayesha jalal book on democracy and authoritarianism in south asia should be read by everyone interested in sub-continent politics and modern history.

Ahsan said...


Denial, maybe?


Thanks for that. And I agree with you on the endorsement of Jalal's book: it's really good. I read it for one of my topics (Democratization) for one of my prelims and it was a very intelligent and historically grounded argument.

Ray Lightning said...

Please call the Pak army's bluff.

The Pakistani government is indeed weak.

There is a significant section of the Pak Army officers who subscribe to fundamentalist Islam. Their world-view is surprisingly close to that of Lashkar-e-Toiba. In this view, there is a constant tension with India because it is an infidel nation (its 150 million Muslims notwithstanding). Pak Army needs to "defend" Pakistan against this enemy. Nobody seems to remember that all the 4 major wars that we have fought have been initiated by Pakistan.

India needs no war with Pakistan. Not even the most rabid fundamentalist Hindutva organizations want to initiate war with Pakistan. It is against the interest of India to have a punctured border and volatile neighbors. The situation is very different from the days of Bangladesh war. If you look at the Indian response in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, it has been extremely calm and composed.

There is a huge pile of evidence that the attackers are of Pakistani origin, no one in the world except Mr. Zardari states the contrary. The father of the lone captured terrorist has recognized his son, for God's sake. Still India maintains its composure, because any destabilization of Pakistan is strongly against its strategic interests.

The Pakistani civilian government is weak . There is no assurance that the army will not pull a military coup out of its sleeve. There will always be an excuse of internal militancy and external threat (from India) that can be used as justification.

Since the Government of Zardari knows how weak its position is, it has no choice but to listen to the army dictates. This explains why Mr.Zardari still refuses to acknowledge the Pakistani nationality of the terrorists, and why the village of Faridkot is under army canopy - all evidence is being botched up. The Pak army has a history of using lies as a strategy : the Kargil invasion is one good example. Under these circumstances, India cannot offer to share all the evidence with Pakistan. Surely, there are some good guys in the government, but they are not sufficiently strong.

It is sad, but utterly true that Pakistani nationalism has always been interlinked with fundamentalist Islamic parties. All the parties that stood for a united Pakistan in the face of a crisis are far-right religious parties (the Jamat-e-Islami party in Bangladesh, the Muttahida-majlis-e-amal in NWFP). The secular parties (awami national parties in Bangladesh/NWFP) have a history of separatism. Due to this history, the Pak army has invariably become a stronghold of far-right Islamic thinking. Many such generals are still influential in the army, and particularly in the ISI. The Pak army has been maintaining an enormous charade (first through Musharaff, and now through Kayani) that it is fighing with the USA against the Taliban. But, nobody knows how long this charade is going to last.

It is first in the interest of Pakistani people to discipline its army, weed far-right elements out of it, and then make the army totally answerable to the parliament. Unless this is done, the Pakistani government will not have any credibility in the international community.