ISLAMABAD — “When you don’t have a democratic, inclusive or participatory system of governance, many people feel excluded and their voice is not heard. And that is why conflict grows.” – Raza Rumi
Raza Rumi is a scholar in residence at Ithaca College and visiting faculty at Cornell, as well as an author, policy analyst, journalist and expert on Pakistan’s politics. The Borgen Project spoke to Raza Rumi about the dynamics of conflict and development in Pakistan.
The Borgen Project: Is conflict a cause or a result of underdevelopment?
Raza Rumi: I think conflict is an area that is still understudied and it is still being understood better. In my view, it is both actually. In many cases, conflict is a manifestation of underdevelopment or unequal development where certain groups of people have not enjoyed the fruits of development. And in many other cases, it is actually a kind of cause of underdevelopment. The dynamics of conflict and development in Pakistan can be explained in both of these ways.
TBP: What are Pakistan’s major internal conflicts and what has the state done to address them?
Rumi: The first is ethnic conflict between various ethnicities in Pakistan and particularly, their participation in national affairs and national development. For two decades, Pakistan’s eastern wing complained of exclusion and that partly contributed to the civil war of 1971. Certain groups and ethnic communities have felt marginalized. The best-known manifestation is Balochistan, where the Baloch population has felt excluded from the mainstream national power and development in Pakistan for decades because they are so small in number. Further, the elites of the Baloch tribes have left the ordinary population impoverished.
The Taliban insurgency in many ways has similar kinds of dimensions. The ideological masters may be different but the foot soldiers of Taliban comprise the underclass that has taken up arms against the State in the northwestern regions of Pakistan because of the State’s choices, behavior and its trajectory in the recent decades. That is somewhat linked to the third kind of conflict — that is external but spillover into the internal domain — which is the regional conflicts between Pakistan and India, and Pakistan and Afghanistan.
And then there is the Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict in Pakistan. Let me add that it is not a conflict between communities. Rather it is a manifestation of a larger State security project since 1979. That was the fateful year when Afghanistan was invaded by Russian forces and when the Iranian Revolution took place. Since the early 1980s, Pakistan sided with the Saudi-Sunni axis to contain Iran’s Shia power.
So that is again linked to the third kind of external dimension of conflict. One is regional and the other is a larger conflict within the Muslim world. And, because Pakistan currently has the second largest Muslim population after Indonesia, it is quite natural that it could be part of that. Of course, some of that hatred or prejudice has seeped into the local population but the armed groups that kill Sunnis and Shias are not popular groups, in the sense that they cannot win elections. But they definitely are supported by the State and external actors such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.
TBP: What are some major factors causing these conflicts? And what is the role of horizontal and vertical disparities?
Rumi: I think the first problem is that when you don’t have a democratic, inclusive or participatory system of governance, many people feel excluded and their voice is not heard. For half of Pakistan’s history, there is the military rule and the other half is controlled democracy. Until you have democratic participation, you cannot find a method of conflict resolution. And that is why conflict grows. The second is linked to skewed income distribution, extreme poverty although it has gone down in the recent past, still, there are regions in Pakistan like FATA and Balochistan where more than half the population live under the poverty line.
And then you have the third cause of conflict which is the unequal distribution of natural resources. A lot of Pakistan’s resources are captured by the elites who come from either the populous province of Punjab or prominent institutions of the state like civilian, bureaucracy and the military. That is why people from smaller provinces feel marginalized. And the last one has to do with security policy because if your security policy envisions promoting its agenda through non-state militias, then you are planting more seeds for community level conflict.
TBP: What are the economic impacts of civil wars and other conflicts, and what should policymakers do to reduce conflict and enhance development in Pakistan?
Rumi: Some of these have already been calculated by the government of Pakistan. For example, the War on Terror has cost Pakistan billions of dollars in the last decade, not to mention 70,000-80,000 people who have died in the acts of terrorism. The opportunity cost of terrorism and instability has deterred foreign investments in the country.
The conflict with India keeps on diverting the resources to a huge military expenditure on the development and expansion of nuclear arsenal. Obviously those funds can be channeled to social and infrastructural development which can radically transform Pakistan into a State comparable to Thailand, Taiwan and other East Asian countries, but unfortunately, that seems far from being achieved.
Within Pakistan, definitely, the insurgency in northwestern regions has caused livelihood disruptions, horrendous internal displacements and innumerous economic losses. Similar problems also exist in regions like south Punjab with high rates of poverty. So these have been the major impacts of conflict. The solution lies in a stronger democratic Pakistan where the voice of people is heard, and a Pakistan which has stable and friendly relations with neighbors, especially India.
– Aslam Kakar