In Abbottabad, the Failures and Resiliency of Pakistan

Is the Pakistani state, in the latest international embarrassment of Osama bin Laden's death, deliberately derelict, merely incompetent, or some unique and tragic combination of both?

A boy collects debris, remains of a firefight, as journalists surround the compound where al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad Pakistan. Ahmad Masood/Reuters.
ABBOTTABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistan isn't exactly a fragile country. It is often spoken of as a product of the 1947 end of British colonial rule in South Asia, and a parallel state to the larger and more organic India. In truth, Pakistan really was born in 1971, after the creation of Bangladesh and the humiliating military defeat it suffered while simultaneously trying to resist both the popular insurgency agitating for a free Bangladesh and a powerful Indian military intervention in what was then West Pakistan. Pakistan is a country with a 40 year history. Of these 40 years, it has been ruled by its military for a full 20, with General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, probably Ronald Regan's favorite brown manOsama Bin Laden, clocking in 11 years, and General Pervez Musharraf, who incidentally happened to be George W. Bush's man-crush in South Asia, clocking in nine. Enduring two decade-long dictatorships, multiple wars, and a traumatic partition, Pakistan has taken a few licks it its time. But perhaps none have been so utterly embarrassing and damning as the discovery of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, hiding not in the mysterious and rugged mountains of its Berm uda Triangle-like tribal areas, but in the West Point-like, relatively prosperous and serene city of Abbottabad, a short distance from the Pakistan Military Academy at Kakul. The Pakistani elite has always been incurably obsessed with Pakistan's image on the Upper West Side and in K Street bars, rather than with the realities of its inner city ghettoes, and its God-forsaken villages. This latest blow, however, must serve to finally wake up the Pakistani elite to take notice. This is no ordinary black eye. It is a battered and bloodied edifice wrapped up in an indefinite coma.

The Pakistani elite's comatose condition can be gauged from the absence of a high-level official reaction to the bin Laden killing. While U.S. President Barack Obama, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Indian Home Affairs Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, and a parade of the counter-terrorism policy elite from around the world spoke at length about what had happened, all Pakistan could muster was a poorly written, meaningless, and meandering press release from the Foreign Office. The same foreign office that has been without a full cabinet Minister ever since the last one was fired in February for being too close to the Pakistani military establishment. Miraculously, while the Foreign Office was embarrassing Pakistan, President Zardari found time to write an op-ed rife with trite factoids and contested anecdotes, not for his own people, but for the readers of the Washington Post's op-ed pages.

Much of what we need to know about Pakistan's condition today can be gauged not from the substantive events that take place in Pakistan -- the suicide bombings at an alarming frequency, the schools without teachers, the teachers without skills, the assassinations of senior elected officials -- but instead from how Pakistani government structures react to them. We can flag how upsetting it is that bin Laden was in Pakistan, or that little girls are often denied an education in Pakistan, or that suicide bombings take place at shrines in Pakistan -- but the real outrage isn't that these sad and despicable things happen. It is that these sad and despicable things happen over, and over, and over again in Pakistan. There is seemingly an inexhaustible stamina in Pakistan for an unaccountable, unresponsive, and unhinged Pakistani state. Whatever floats your boat of moral outrage in Pakistan (and it is a diverse bag across the country), the one consistent feature is that things will happen without the government making much effort to seem that it is in charge, that it is interested, that it even exists.

There can only be two possible explanations for this phenomenon, and they are not mutually exclusive. The first is that the Pakistani state deliberately chooses dereliction in its duties to its people and to the international community. This version of Pakistan requires it, quite frankly, to have the world smartest and most effective intelligence, military, and political class in the world. It may be possible, but it seems rather unlikely. This would be the dereliction theory for Pakistan.

The second is that this is more a matter of competence. The Pakistani state -- military and civilian - doesn't do things -- build better schools, rout corruption, find and expel bin Laden -- because it doesn't know how to. It simply can't fulfill its duties to its people and to the rest of the world. Let us call this the incompetence theory for Pakistan.

In reality, Pakistan has both these problems in undeterminable quantities. There are clearly disparate and diverse elements within the state that have differing views on what Pakistan's duties are, to what extent they can be ignored, and to what extent they must be fulfilled. But there is also, assuredly, a wide and diverse swathe of the Pakistani state -- both military and civilian -- that is simply too incompetent to get things right.

The dangers and risks of a Pakistan, totally uncorked, have been detailed and documented to great commercial success for years -- "The World's Most Dangerous Country," "The Epicenter of Terrorism," etc. These are all fine couplets in a global news media obsessed with seeking Twitter-length insights and profundity about the world. They do not substitute for good, solid, and pragmatic policy.

The complex and multifaceted reality of Pakistan poses a challenge for the United States and for Pakistan's neighbours. An oversimplified institutional approach to Pakistan that seeks to incentivize cooperation and disincentivize a lack thereof just has not worked. The carrot has made the Pakistani state fat and lazy. The stick has made the Pakistani state fearless, stubborn, and obtuse. It is pretty hard to get a fat, stubborn kid do anything. Expecting it to dismantle the framework that has allowed it to grow fat in the first place is ridiculous.

Whether it is the dereliction theory or the incompetence theory that you believe in, the thinking about Pakistan will eventually have to move beyond a transactional and instrumentalized model. Pakistan is a country of 180 million people that has its own political and strategic insecurities and needs. Other countries don't have to agree with the Pakistani state about everything. Indeed, most Pakistanis probably don't agree either, and are quite tired of the manner in which these needs are defined by an unaccountable security establishment.

Still, it persists. If the Pakistani state knew where Bin Laden was, it speaks to how much distance exists on some basic issues between the U.S. and Pakistan. If the Pakistani state didn't know where Bin Laden was, it speaks to how much distance there is to cover before Pakistan can be expected to do its duties to its people and to the international community. Either way, for all its weakness and bad calculus, this is not a fragile country. The only choice the U.S. has is to continue to engage and understand what makes it tick. Tock.