What makes a country collapse?

Some time ago, I read a detailed piece by Professor Charles King, who had analysed a forecast by Andrei Alekseevich Amalrik (best known in the Western world for his essay ‘Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?’, published in 1970. The book predicts the country’s eventual breakup under the weight of social and ethnic antagonisms and a disastrous war with China). I found it an immensely interesting read and noticed a lot of pertinence to the systematic and consistent collapse of many Muslim countries especially since end of WW-1. With the Ottoman Empire destroyed, Russia paralysed by foreign intervention and civil war, and French influence limited somewhat by their minor military role in the Middle East, Britain’s military success made her the dominant power in the region. The key tenets of the agreement they had negotiated in relative haste amidst the turmoil of World War One continue to influence the region to this day. But while Sykes-Picot’s straight lines had proved significantly helpful to Britain and France in the first half of the twentieth century, their impact on the region’s peoples was quite different.

The map that the two men drew divided the land that had been under Ottoman rule since the early 16th Century into new countries—and relegated these political entities to two spheres of influence i.e. Iraq, Transjordan, and Palestine under British influence and Syria and Lebanon under French influence. The two men were not mandated to redraw the borders of the Arab countries in North Africa, but the division of influence existed there as well, with Egypt under British rule, and France controlling the Maghreb. However, at the end of Second World War, the colonial British and French saw their colonies slipping out of hand and gaining independence with the USA and Former USSR emerging as the two superpowers giving birth to an era of the Cold War.

The invasion of Afghanistan by the former USSR in 1979 and its subsequent defeat in 1989 that resulted in her collapse in 1991 was a classic case study as to how empires and big countries fall apart. Nevertheless, the invisible decline of the former USSR was predicted almost two decades in advance by Andrei Amalrik in his above quoted essay. Had that been paid due attention by the state, its institutions and the public, perhaps the fate of the USSR could have been different. Did someone conduct similar scholarly work to forewarn Former Ottoman, Mughal, Persian, Taimur, Seljuk, and Mamluk Empires or back at home did anyone caution well before the disintegration of Pakistan in 1971? Did someone forecast devastation in Afghanistan by US and allies, subsequent destruction of Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen and chaotic developments in other Muslim countries like Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Central Asian Republics, African Muslim counties and Middle Eastern monarchies? Is it a duly modified manifestation of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilisations’’?

Needless to say that it is of utmost importance to understand the phenomenon with external and inherent factors that cause and contribute to the crumbling of a seemingly stable state to avoid recurrence. Viewed from 2020, exactly 50 years since it was published, Amalrik’s work has an eerie timeliness. He was concerned with how a great power handles multiple internal crises—the faltering of institutions of domestic order, the craftiness of unmoored and venal politicians, the first tremors of systemic illegitimacy. He wanted to understand the dark logic of social dissolution and how discrete political choices sum up to apocalyptic outcomes. All these factors and concerns sound familiar when we look at the conditions in the above stated Muslim countries and Pakistan in particular, which has remained in the eye of the storm for most part of its 73 years history due to disregard to such apprehensions, which have been duly exploited and fanned by hostile countries unabatedly.

Pakistan is standing shoulder to shoulder with China and India is being propped up as the US’ strategic ally as a member of the Quad group to contest and contain China; therefore, the external threats have been multiplied and magnified. Besides, the ongoing political polarisation in Pakistan due to envisaged change and the accountability drive by the incumbent government, the above discussed factors and concerns demand keeping both feet well anchored on the ground rather than following a mad rush without adequate arrangements on the ground. One should also be sceptical about the degree to which leaders who trumpet reform are in fact committed to enacting it. Governments are good at recognising the faults in other places and times, but they are terrible judges of the anomalies built into their own foundations and structures. If a country could sail the seas unrivalled and put humans into outer space, it had little incentive to look inward at what was rotten at the core. Stability and internal reform have always been in tension. Where is the breaking point? How long can a political system seek to remake itself before triggering one of the two reactions i.e. a devastating backlash from those most threatened by change (the current opposition’s reaction in Pakistan) or a realisation by the change makers (incumbent government) that their goals can no longer be realised within the institutions and ideologies of the present order? Yet the longer this state of affairs helps to perpetuate the status quo, the more rapid and decisive will be its collapse when confrontation with reality becomes inevitable; as was the case for most unfortunate neglect of the stark ground realties in former East Pakistan in 60s and 70 with a most tragic outcome. Such is the dilemma being faced by Pakistan’s current leadership; nevertheless, learning from the past and timely steering the country out of the stormy waters is the job they have been chosen for.

Saleem Qamar Butt
The writer is a retired senior army officer with experience in international relations, military diplomacy and analysis of geo-political and strategic security issues.

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