Corruption, OBL, Terrorism

June 26, 2011 § 1 Comment

I have just spent the best part of my Saturday morning responding to an uninformed provocation by someone I haven’t spoken to in seven years. It goes without saying that the only way I can justify this otherwise colossal misuse of time is by sharing what I wrote. I hope some of this is interesting.

(In case it’s not clear, the provocation consisted of four points: 1. Pakistan is poorly run; 2. Pakistan is corrupt; 3. Pakistan’s government sponsors terrorists; 4. Pakistan’s population is complicit in the support of terrorism.)


– – – –

“1. Pakistan is poorly run” AND “2. Pakistan is corrupt”

The problem with this claim is not that, as an empirical fact, Pakistan is actually characterized by “good governance,” but that one needs to think more carefully when assessing the explanatory relevance of “bad governance.” There are two questions, here: first, what explains ‘bad governance’? Second, what does ‘bad governance’ explain? On both of these questions, mainstream wisdom offers no sound answers, only flourishes for political speeches.

To take the first question, the staple refrain is that Pakistan is characterized by a ‘culture of corruption/mismanagement’: in other words, a deficient bureaucratic culture explains corruption. This is extraordinarily simple-minded, and obviously question-begging. What you really have, in effect, is a non-explanation: a ‘culture of corruption/mismanagement’ explains ‘corruption/mismanagement.’ Profound. [1]

One can only understand a ‘culture of corruption’ as a property of underdevelopment–in a context where public sector salaries are low, where social welfare is low (e.g., people’s loyalties are easily bought and sold when loyalty is the price one pays to escape poverty), where the State’s regulatory capacities are weak (and/or have been gutted by the neoliberal counterrevolution), ‘bad governance’ can be expected to flourish. This is not to say that other factors are entirely irrelevant–the weakness of ‘subjective’ indices of corruption aside (i.e., levels of corruption are often measured by asking people about their experiences), it’s true that there’s limited variation amongst countries that are underdeveloped [2]. But it is to say that the most important factors are always overlooked, in establishment circles, precisely because they can’t be addressed within an establishment paradigm.

This, implicitly, addresses the second question, as well: what does ‘bad governance’ explain? If it’s true that underdevelopment explains corruption, then it can’t be true that corruption explains underdevelopment (and with it, the consequences of underdevelopment–high levels of poverty, un- and underemployment, etc.).

For example, you seem to think that the Pakistani government’s sub-par response to the flooding, in Pakistan, is a consequence of ‘mismanagement/corruption’ (i.e., that corruption explains the travails of the affectees). This is bollocks. There have been two main (and complementary) factors, in my opinion:

(1) Because of the general poverty of the economy and the exceptional weakness of the tax system, the Pakistani government has basically no resources to spend on its population. This is exacerbated by the imperatives of military engagement in the NW and, more importantly, the demands of the international money markets (e.g., the IMF and its bondholders) [3]. It’s been demanded that it target a deficit/GDP ratio of 4%, give or take (it already spends at less than half the deficit of the ‘better-managed’ US, incidentally).

All this helps explain why the physical infrastructure for managing the rivers in Pakistan has been so thoroughly degraded, over the years. It also helps explain why the resources for reconstruction/rehabilitation have not been forthcoming. [4]

(2) Because the vast majority of the affectees were poor peasants, even if the gov’t had resources to spend on them, it likely wouldn’t. This is not, though, because it is corrupt; this is just what the rich do to the poor around the world absent popular pressure to act differently (i.e., they fuck them over). Much of the ‘mismanagement’ of the water infrastructure, which the article that I initially posted was addressing, can be traced to this sort of problem: allowing large landlords to illegally tap the waterways, the impunity enjoyed by the capitalists that strip forests, pollute wetlands, etc.

I don’t want to spend much more time on the larger question (what does ‘corruption’ explain?), except to point you to a few readings that make the above case in more nuance and detail than I can. Ha-Joon Chang, for example, has written some decent stuff on how advanced industrial economies were characterized by extraordinary levels of corruption at their moment of take-off (think American robber barons in the late 19th century)–see ‘Kicking Away the Ladder’ and/or ‘Bad Samaritans’. The best stuff, though, is Mushtaq Khan’s work on governance, where the issue is given even more serious treatment [5]. There are some things he argues that further complicate what I’ve written (he distinguishes between different kinds of “good governance,” for example), but the broad points are the same.

“3. Pakistan’s government is complicit in terrorist activity

Again, the problem here is not that this is wrong as an empirical fact, but rather that you have misunderstood its relevance. There are two ways to approach this.

On the one hand, let’s accept (for no good reason, mind you) the mainstream definition of who is and who isn’t a terrorist. I understand you to be reacting to the fact that the Pakistani government gives tacit support to various Afghan insurgent groups that take refuge in the NW of Pakistan (e.g. the Haqqani network, the Quetta Shura, what have you). That the gov’t partonizes them is well-known. The problem with your ‘outrage,’ though, is that it holds the Pakistani State to exceptional standards; you fail to grasp that its actions are intrinsic to the logic of inter-State competition in the terrible world in which we live.

Since I’m sure you’re aware of the sordid history of the groups the US sponsored in USSR-occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s [6], I won’t use it to prove my point. Instead, a simple thought-experiment is sufficient illustration. Say, for example, that Pakistan were to invade and occupy Mexico for a period of several years, installing a government whose interests clash with the US’. Say, also, that the US was not in a position to respond by ‘conventional’ military means. In a situation like this, it can be taken for granted that the US would support Mexican ‘terrorists/insurgents’; no observer of international affairs is being honest if he/she concludes differently [7]. Pakistan, today, finds itself in a similar position.

This is not to say that the establishment’s sponsorship of these groups is worth supporting, or that the State is blameless. Of course its behaviour is reprehensible. But what you and others fail to appreciate is that the fact that it’s reprehensible is not explained by the influence of irrational/conniving/Islamist Pakistani generals–it’s a consequence of the US occupation of Afghanistan, specifically, and of the inter-state system in which we live, more generally.

On the other hand, if we apply a consistent definition of terrorism (i.e., rather than accepting the mainstream’s lay understanding of the concept), then the grounds for your selective outrage dissipate even more definitively. ‘Terrorism,’ after all, can only be understood as the intentional murder of civilians in pursuit of political ends. (Note that you are guilty of ‘intentionally’ doing something if it is an expected consequence of your actions. Say, for example, murdering people in the course of dropping a nuclear bomb on a city of millions of people–‘But I didn’t mean to murder hundreds of thousands of civilians’ is not a good defense).

But if we apply this reasonable definition of terrorism to the history of international affairs, we find that, overwhelmingly, the perpetrators of terrorism are actually States, not rogue actors like OBL or the Afghan insurgents. The contest isn’t even close–according to Eqbal Ahmed, the ratio is in the range of one hundred thousand to one [8].

The post 9/11 world is a great test case. The fact that OBL was the world’s most wanted terrorist does not mean that he was the political actor most guilty of international terrorism in recent years. That honor, actually, falls quite unambiguously to the 43rd President of the United States and his inner coterie. To take only one example, relevant to OBL–the best estimate of the number of civilians that died as a result of the initial US bombing campaign of Afghanistan is about 20,000 [9]. Their deaths were an anticipated consequence of the actions taken by GW Bush and his comrades. Now, you might argue that this was justified (you would be wrong, mind you), but that is immaterial to the fact that it qualifies as terrorism. The more than one million Iraqis that died as a consequence of the US invasion of Iraq (not to mention the hundreds of thousands that were the direct victims of coalition air strikes, night raids, etc.) are also, obviously, not irrelevant to the proof of Bush’s barbarity [10].

“4. Pakistanis are complicit in their government’s support of international terrorism.”

This is where you’re at your least well-informed.

First, the vast majority of Pakistanis are overwhelmingly preoccupied by bread-and-butter issues, not OBL’s crusades, or his fate [11]. An imperfect proxy of this is the support received by religious parties at the polls. Contrary to recieved wisdom, they’ve never done well, peaking at about 11% in 2002, but down to 3% in the last elections, in 2008. There were rallies in various cities around Pakistan after OBL’s death, but they were uniformly pretty weak.

The more fundamental problems with your intervention, though, follow from some of my earlier points. People didn’t shed tears of joy when OBL was killed because, as Allan Nairn put it, OBL’s still rule the world. Pakistanis never understood OBL as their principal enemy–and when Obama is raining hellfire on the NW and propping up rapacious elites in Af-Pak, it’s difficult to blame them [12]. The reason that there were concerns when the US violated Pakistan’s sovereignty lies in the history of its behaviour as a hegemon–it’s widely (and correctly) understood that the interests of the Pakistani people are basically incompatible with the interests of the US State.

Last, where they did happen, scenes of small minorities cheering OBL are obviously disheartening, but why are they any more revolting than scenes of Americans cheering GW Bush (or, for that matter, voting for him!)? There’s a mainstream narrative that ascribes the fact of OBL rallies to the irrational bloodlust of Muslim men–bearded savages with no regard for civilized values. This, of course, is racist hogwash. The reason that some Pakistanis celebrate OBL is no different from the reason that many Americans celebrate Bush Jr., Clinton, Bush Sr., Reagan, etc.–they are misinformed, and have grounded a whole worldview in that misinformation.

– – – –

[1] And not too different from the hacks who attribute ‘poverty’ to a ‘culture of poverty.’ The obvious problem being that they can’t explain where the ‘culture of poverty’ comes from, and –unless racists–why only certain groups exhibit it.

[2] Though it’s not true that this is along the axis of high-growth vs. low-growth–i.e., a Vietnam vs. a Pakistan. See, pg. 3.

[3] The gov’t is (probably unrealistically) targeting about US $23 billion in revenue collection, this year (The US spends the same amount of money every 11 weeks, just in Afghanistan). Something like 75% of this collected revenue will go to servicing the public debt and/or security expenditure. (

[4] See a piece I wrote a while ago, for more on this angle:



[7] The history of the groups the US sponsored/trained in Central America, in the 1980s, is not irrelevant here.



[10] and




§ One Response to Corruption, OBL, Terrorism

  • sl jamal says:

    Whether Pakistanis are hand in glove with their govt in corruption or otherwise but at least their footballers are like their cricketers Mohd. Aamer, Mohd Asif and skipper Salman.

    This will become pretty apparent when you guys minutely monitor their match VIDEO against Bangladesh held on June 29, 2011 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The Pak Footballers were found even, unable to chase the Ball. How come their stamina were drained out, in god or the DEMON speed? Remember Christine Keeler & the Piccadilly Flesh pots, boy these guys are apparently khandanis!!!

    Pray, at the least some if NOT ALL heads M U S T R O L L!!!

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