IPCS Special Commentary

The Failed State Index and South Asia: Revisiting the White Man’s Burden

05 Aug, 2013    ·   4068

Salma Malik decodes the FSI vis-a-vis the IPCS Review of the same

The failed state phenomenon is much like the proverbial Humpty Dumpty, which once it falls off the wall becomes pretty difficult for the king’s men to pick up off the floor and put back together again. Thus making the global community weary and watchful of another Humpty Dumpty take a tumble, as firstly this creates a huge splatter that certainly leaves marks on everyone around it. And the closer the state is, the worst is the impact and secondly the size of the problem becomes mammoth and no longer possible to handle or contain. 

This is a very simplistic take on the national security doctrine initiated by the American president George Bush back in 2002. From president Bush’s statement that “America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones,” the same dilemma continues to haunt the Obama administration and security aides as well as policy makers, which is evident from Robert Gates’ prophetic words in 2011 that “in the decades to come, the most lethal threats to the United States’ safety and security —are likely to emanate from states that cannot adequately govern themselves or secure their own territory.” Therefore, failed or failing states considered as a clear and present threat to US safety and security are to be prevented or rather preempted.

Thus encompassing a dangerous trend providing the US the legitimacy and approval to intervene in any country, such as Libya on humanitarian grounds, in order to prevent the spread of more such cases. 

This somewhat resonates of the “white man’s burden” that neither served its colonial masters in the past, nor could deliver any relief to any of the antagonists under the current scenario, but exacerbated the overall security situation. It ended up turning stressed yet stable countries into totally chaotic, free for all battlefields which spelled disaster for not only the countries themselves but for all concerned, on the pretext of regime change. The question that pops up in one’s mind is, would this moral argument be equally applied to every fragile, weak and failing state? Or is it case specific? Unfortunately the trend appears tilted more towards the latter. Where on one hand, global powers such as the US definitely find threats emanating from failing states inimical to their security, not all such cases acquire a high priority status. Nor every failing state poses a direct threat to the US and its allies.

One of the most glaring examples could be that of complete inaction by US and the world community during the hundred day long genocide and complete failure of state apparatus in Rwanda, which claimed approximately 800000 lives. Rwanda neither in the past nor today holds significant interest for the global community, to the extent that it did not even merit a UN preventive meeting during the height of the 1994 genocide, until it was too late. 

So why should the global powers be alarmed about state failure? How is it gauged and assessed? And how absolute is this failure to start seeking an alternate universe in case we are entitled to be members of an endangered species. It was not only incidents like Rwanda, but a direct attack on US homeland security in the shape of monumental 9/11, and its long-spread roots in Afghanistan that led to the development of this new discourse. Besides the new emerging “green arching crescent of crisis,” the “failed” status of Afghanistan as an aftermath of post Geneva accord’s civil war was cited as the biggest reason. Ironically, however, the totalitarian regime of Taliban took over Kabul and events fast led to 9/11. The total collapse of state and governance, rampant warlordism, near to absent human security and the rights of a population either displaced or residing near abroad as refugees, made Afghanistan a classic case study where all types of non-state actors operated openly and became the masterminds of terrorism, did not elicit any global action, until their interests demanded. 

In South Asia unlike the West, social discourse is still more qualitative than quantitative. Therefore, each year the Failed State Index (FSI), a brain child of Fund for Peace, is dreadfully anticipated like a year end result card by the 178 pupils (states) registered, who are judged against two categories that hold a total of twelve performance criterion. As expected, the South Asian neighbors have invariably ranked in the first 100s. The six categories against which they are judged are: demographic pressures, refugees and IDPs, uneven economic development, group grievance, human flight and brain and lastly poverty and  economic decline amongst the socio-economic indicators and state legitimacy, public services, security apparatus, human rights and rule of law, factionalized elites and lastly external intervention amongst political and military indicators. 

For 2011 as well as 2012, these neighbors have predictably shown more or less consistent positions, Starting from the high alert category, Afghanistan has moved up from the 6th to 7th position, Pakistan remained a constant 13, Nepal improved from 27th to 30th position in the alert category, Bangladesh a consistent 29th, Sri Lanka slipped down one slot to 28 from its previous 29. Whereas, in the very high warning category, Bhutan moved from 59th to 62. Lastly India, which occupies the high warning slot bettered to 79 from 78, whereas Maldives retained its 88th position in the same category. In individual categories, only Afghanistan has the worst indicators with regard to external intervention and security apparatus. The latter indicator also includes Pakistan, however even the better ranking countries on the FSI failed to make it to the best performers profile. 

The South Asian countries couldn’t but be more diverse. Starting with Afghanistan, despite billions of dollars worth of investment and a continued Western presence which wants to leave the country as a functional and stable democracy, still retains the factors that contributed to its total breakdown and failure a decade plus back, and may unfortunately fare worse on the Index after 2014. How much should Afghanistan be blamed for this state of affairs, as US along its Western Allies have been working very hard for the past 12 years on “Project Afghanistan” as they deem fit, ignoring some critical fundamentals, which they realized too late and are now on a timeline, which can never ensure desired results. America’s initial no compromise, no dialogue and military heavy strategy, proved unsuccessful, despite friendly advice from neighboring states to engage in dialogue with opposition forces. In fact the colonial expeditions into Afghanistan which proved disastrous for the British also had similar military heavy approach to it, and ended in similar failures. The US attempts to engineer a new system of governance and politics has also not been successful. The latter was put more in place in order to redeem for the sins of the faulty Geneva Accord that caused the extremely weak post conflict Afghanistan to fail completely during the decade of the 1990s. 

Sharing the High Alert Category alongside Afghanistan is neighboring Pakistan. Though conveniently clubbed as a singular war and strategic zone “Af-Pak” by the US administration, and having equally bad security indicators as Afghanistan, is Pakistan condemned to be a failed state? There is no denying that proximity to a minimum of three decades long war zone, inherent contested borders and territory, long drawn conventional conflict, colonial legacy, refugee pressure compounded later by IDP presence and indigenously poor governance leave Pakistan in a very fragile situation, yet none of these problems are incurable. Interestingly the FSI does an excellent job in highlighting the bad indicators, what it doesn’t highlight are the factors that can positively impact. A proactive media, democracy becoming stronger, judicial activism and civil society awareness are few of the positives the country has to show. Where Pakistan is a classic case of poor governance, with external and internal stress compounding, by no means, it can be considered a failed state, as selectively projected. 

Maldives which ranks 79 is already looking for a new land to settle, as oceanic water levels are posing a big threat to the archipelago’s future survivability, whereas Bangladesh with similar issues is indexed 29. Unfortunately at times such indices are selectively applied as well, for countries with better relations with US have managed to fare better despite questionable human rights, poverty indicators and large scale grievances, case in point being the Kashmiri population as well as now evident and much discussed “genocidal actions” of Sri Lankan government, while crushing the Tamil insurgency. 

Pitching developing countries such as those in South Asia with the developed world will always yield drastic indicators. Secondly the notion of “failure” makes the entire situation much dire and morbid. Perhaps more appropriate would be to assess the fragility or weakness of a given state, which may have inherent or acquired traits that could lead to state collapse. The much touted Arab Spring which has been widely celebrated by the West was never a revolution but initially an indigenous protest against repressive regimes, which was later captured and manipulated by external actors for their vested interests. The discomfort of Western elites was palpable when Egyptian elections brought Muhammad Morsi in to power with overwhelming majority, and his recent removal shows a lack of comprehension of domestic dynamics by the global powers. 

Will countries on very high alert status fall and splatter like Humpty Dumpty, compelling the king’s men to scramble to the rescue? To take the worst case indexed, i.e. Afghanistan and applying formulae such as division of ethnic-sectarian grounds despite the internal chaos have totally been rejected and aggressively resisted. Similar cartographies are planned, shelved and reconsidered with regards Pakistan. Can such experiments work? Is it so easy to break a country and experiment with it? How long will the ‘White Man’ shoulder the mercenary zeal to correct and reform the global pagans?

The takeaway of the FSI for individual countries is to work out their weaknesses and improve their holistic security and governance indicators. The road to reforms and civilian oversight is long and tedious but not impossible. For the bigger powers, the need is to understand and empathize with the local dynamics rather than impose and enforce solutions made in a sterile briefing room of a policy making outfit. In the global chess game, the States may be a pawn with calculations assessed through such indices, but on the ground, States are real entities with populations adversely affected by ill planned moves and strategies.