Webcast Recap

On March 2, the Asia Program hosted a book launch for Bangladesh and Pakistan: Flirting with Failure in South Asia. The author, Wilson Center Senior Policy Scholar William B. Milam, has previously served as U.S. ambassador to the book's two subject countries.

What is meant by "failure" in the book title? Milam explained that the word refers not to a total breakdown in law and order, but instead to a "dysfunctional behavior or action" that becomes a regional or global threat. In Pakistan, such a scenario would entail "some or all of the country" succumbing to extremist forces and becoming a "haven" for international jihadists. In Bangladesh, failure would mean a return to the dysfunctional governance that marred the country in the past. Milam asserted that failure is less likely in Bangladesh than in Pakistan, though he singled out the recent violent mutiny of Bangladesh's paramilitary forces as a "worrying sign." This incident, he said, suggests that "social conditions may be deteriorating more than we thought"—though at this point it is too early to tell.

Milam addressed three themes from the book that "lead us to worry about failure" in Bangladesh and Pakistan. One is religion, and how it has affected political development. Three sub-themes flow from this broad theme of religion. One is that both countries have failed to carve out a national identity—and this "identity problem" is rooted in an inability to reconcile competing visions of secular and Islamic identities. A second sub-theme is the "phenomenal growth" of Islamist forces and Islamism. According to Milam, Islamism does not threaten the state in Bangladesh, but does in Pakistan, where Islamists have had a "singular vision" of an Islamist state since the 1940s. A third sub-theme is what Milam described as the "Faustian bargains" between Pakistani politicians and religious parties. Throughout Pakistan's history, elements of the secular, nationalist vision of the country's founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, have been "traded away" for more immediate political goals. Islamabad's recent deal with Islamist militants in the Swat Valley—which accedes to the imposition of Islamic law in exchange for peace—is "an extension" of these Faustian bargains.

The second theme from the book is culture, and how it interacts with religion and politics in Bangladesh and Pakistan. The former suffers from a "poisonous, no-holds-barred" political culture, and there is "total disbelief" in Bangladesh's system of parliamentary government. Meanwhile, Pakistan has witnessed the growth of a "praetorian state"—the country's army has invested so much in society that it has become the most dominant political force. Milam noted how the country's civilian job ranks have been filled with retired military officers.

The third theme is India, which is "central to it all." In Bangladesh, relations with India are a partisan issue. One of the two major political parties, the Awami League, has traditionally supported India, while the other one, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has opposed India. Nonetheless, Milam explained, all political parties in Bangladesh realize that the national interest dictates the need to engage India—given that the latter is "the 600-pound elephant next door." In Pakistan, there is an enormous obsession with India. This "Indiacentricity" contributes to the praetorian state, Milam said, because the Pakistani army is perceived as the "ultimate guarantor" of Pakistan's safety and security in the face of an Indian threat often regarded as existential. In Pakistan, he concluded, "every foreign policy issue" is seen through this "Indiacentric" lens.

Drafted by Michael Kugelman, Asia Program Associate
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program, Ph: (202) 691-4020