One of the most enduring paradoxes in Pakistani politics is the existence of a narrative about the state that is inherently contradictory. When looking at Pakistan’s abysmal record of social provision, its poor economic performance, its seemingly endemic violence and lawlessness, and its persistently high levels of corruption and institutional dysfunction, it is tempting to label it as a failed state faced with the prospect of a slow but inevitable collapse. This is a depiction of the state that is reproduced and reinforced every day in the local and international media, as well as in discussions about the country’s future.

At the same time, however, when it comes to pressing questions of public policy, the factors that apparently signify the terminal decline of the Pakistani state disappear from view as proposals are put forward that assume the state is capable of delivering on them. For every article or opinion that laments the state’s lack of capacity, there is one that simultaneously makes demands of the state, pushing for the implementation of measures that could potentially solve Pakistan’s problems.

The paradox described above is arguably rooted in a particular conception of policymaking that treats it as a field that can be understood in isolation from the institutional framework of the state and politics. According to this approach, policies can be ranked in terms of how good or bad they are, with this being determined by objective criteria derived from empirical research and sound theoretical thinking. Following from this, the symptoms of state failure are themselves reflective of poor policy selection; With the right set of rules, laws, and procedures, Pakistan would be able to pull out of its downward spiral.

The faulty logic that underpins this line of thinking immediately becomes clear when looking at the results it has produced. For example, if the state has been unable to deal with militancy and terrorism, the obvious culprit becomes the lack of a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy as well as laws providing the security forces with the means through which to effectively do their jobs. Cue dozens of meetings and conferences aimed at developing the former, as well as the introduction of measures like the notorious Protection of Pakistan Ordinance. Amidst all the sound and fury that accompanies these policy pronouncements, the facts on the ground remain unchanged. Militancy continues unabated, and the extensive time and effort put in to formulating better policies ultimately amounts to nothing. The same can be said for the standard approach to addressing other issues. If people do not pay tax, the solution is to come up with new procedures to combat tax evasion. If schools appear to be underfunded and poorly run, the remedy is to throw more money at the problem and to introduce administrative reform. Technical expertise is deployed, reports are published, laws are passed, and Pakistan’s problems persist. Plus ça change.

The point here is not to suggest that policies do not matter. It is self-evident that some policies are better than others, and it makes sense to focus on developing improved mechanisms through which to exercise state power in the service of the people. However, the mainstream emphasis on policy creation often overlooks the real problem at the heart of Pakistan’s poor governance, namely the presence of an institutional framework that is inherently compromised and utterly incapable of actually executing and implementing policies. Put another way, the merits or demerits of any given policy are of arguably less importance than the question of whether or not the state possesses the capacity to deliver on it. If the state itself is the problem, any attempt at enacting meaningful reform would necessarily have to first address the need to fundamentally transform the structure of the state itself.

The issue of service delivery is a case in point. Patron-client politics lies at the core of Pakistan’s political system, with powerful local level brokers, often drawn from the landed and business elite, making use of their social and economic power, as well as their connections to the bureaucracy, to provide services to their constituents in exchange for votes. Political parties and successive military governments in Pakistan have depended on these individuals to mobilize votes and political support, and have been complicit in the process of ceding the sovereignty and authority of the state to these actors. Across Pakistan, citizens attempting to interact with the state for a variety of different reasons, ranging from making demands for the provision of public goods like roads and sanitation, to expecting the enforcement of justice and the resolution of disputes, are reliant on the continued patronage of powerful intermediaries who exploit their political position to reinforce their domination. In addition to providing these patrons with the power to decide who can or cannot receive state services, as well as further undermining the development of a direct link between state and citizen, this arrangement also constitutes the basis upon which corruption and rent-seeking take place in Pakistan. When policies are implemented and resources are allocated in Pakistan, the process is often subverted by these same local elites. By manipulating bureaucratic transfers and postings, and by involving themselves directly in the planning and execution of projects, these individuals essentially feather their own nests while simultaneously rewarding (and punishing) their subordinates. If policy implementation will inevitably be hamstrung by local level corruption perpetrated by politicians in connivance with the bureaucracy and police, then the question of which policies are best becomes secondary to addressing the factors that continue to undermine state capacity.

A similar argument can be made about current approaches to dealing with the TTP. The debate on whether the government should talk to the TTP or conduct a military operation against them ignores how the state has been exacerbating the problem. In a context where the military continues to dictate Pakistan’s foreign policy and shape its approach to internal security, there is a worrying lack of clarity over the question of whether or not the military establishment has altered its strategic thinking with regards to the use of militant Islamist proxies in both Afghanistan and Kashmir. Given that there does appear to be continued support for the notion that there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban, differentiated not by ideology but by their relationship with the Pakistani military, the question of which policy to pursue is rendered meaningless. If the point of both talks and military action is to simply return Pakistan to the 1990s without actually disarming the Taliban or addressing the root causes of militancy and terrorism, it is clear that a truly comprehensive solution is not possible without first questioning the role state plays in the process.

Understanding the limitations, constraints, and contradictions of state capacity in Pakistan should not give credence to the neo-liberal belief in reducing state power. As evidence from around the world, and indeed Pakistan consistently shows, leaving people to the tender mercies of the market inevitably leads to greater poverty, deprivation, and exclusion. Instead, the aim should be to engage in a radical critique of the state built around a political project that seeks to eliminate both the continued domination of the elite, as well as the blinkered ideological and strategic thinking that is responsible for many of Pakistan’s domestic and external problems.

n    The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.