The Sovereignty of Pakistan

The US has been accused of violating Pakistan's sovereignty when it carried out the early May raid on Osama bin Laden's Abbottabad compound. Stephen Saideman puts things into perspective. 


THE American raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan was a very risky endeavor, its only certainty that the violation of sovereignty that it entailed would upset Pakistan.  Questions remain about how knowledgeable Pakistani authorities were of the mission, and whether the US might have actually had the official but plausibly deniable consent of Pakistani authorities.

Still, I'm trying to figure out whether Pakistan’s stance on its own sovereignty here is ironic or simply hypocritical.  That is, we have many violations of sovereignty in South Asia: the US traipsing across the border, Pakistan doing the same with its neighbours, and perhaps most notably, Bin Laden's presence itself as a violation of Pakistani sovereignty.  

If one had to rank the world’s most significant/frequent/intense violators of sovereignty, focusing only on countries and not on international organizations or non-state actors such as Amnesty International or the equivalent of United Fruit, Pakistan would certainly be in the top five, behind the US, Russia, perhaps France. Who else?  Iran and Israel may be up there as well, but my point is that Pakistan regularly and significantly violates the sovereignty of two of its neighbors—Afghanistan and India—in its support for violent groups that engage in cross-border attacks.  With Kargil in 1999, Pakistan demonstrated a willingness to occupy a neighbour’s territory, about as gross a violation of sovereignty as one can imagine.  

Any way you cut it, Pakistan is a serial violator of sovereignty.  Its pique at the US raid is understandable and justifiable, but it needs to be put into perspective, particularly since the US isn't the only culprit.

Choose: sending a few helicopters across a border, dropping a group of special operatives and a dog to grab one man and shoot a few others; or being the magnet for such a raid and the focal point for a transnational terrorist movement?  Bin Laden allegedly sought a transnational caliphate to replace the governments in the Middle East, making his movement a direct threat to Pakistan’s sovereignty.  That is, if he was there without the permission of the Pakistani government.  Al-Qaeda not only promises the overthrow of the Pakistani government but has engaged in violent acts within Pakistan.  Isn’t that a more severe violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty?  

In the study of civil war, there has been a growing focus on the distinction between indiscriminate and discriminate violence.  Doesn't the same kind of differentiation exist between indiscriminate and discriminate violations of sovereignty?  The American raid was precise and limited.  The Al Qaeda presence and activities in Pakistan are neither.  

Two wrongs do not make a right.  The reality, as Stephen Krasner argued a decade or so ago, is that Sovereignty is “organized hypocrisy.”  It has always been violated and will always be violated.  Everyone gets upset about certain violations but not others, despite committing violations themselves.  And everyone knows this, hence the organized part of the hypocrisy.  It is what makes the system work—that we recognize that violations occur and we do not go to war over every single one of them.

The latest point of sovereign contention is President Karzai’s claim that his officers should be vetting all of the raids conducted within Afghanistan by the United States and the International Security Assistance Force.  He has issued a “last warning,” insisting that Afghanistan is his country and that the outsiders should not trespass.  If he tries to enforce them, the outsiders may pick up and leave, reminding him that there are tradeoffs when it comes to the exercise of sovereign entitlements.  Countries will accept violations when it is in their interest to do so, whether it is set out in the loan conditions of the International Monetary Fund or demonstrated in the activities of troops propping up one’s government.

The funny thing is that the NATO effort to “un-fail” Afghanistan is focused on building up its institutions so that it can sustain itself, making it ultimately responsible for what goes on inside its own borders.  Likewise, the big fear with Pakistan is that it will become a failed state or that the extent of its failure will degrade even further. 

Aye, there is the rub.  Sovereignty has two key elements: government and territory.  The ideal is that the government is the sole authority over a territory and that its territory is unchallenged.  The problem with both Afghanistan and Pakistan is that neither have as much effective authority over their citizens and territory as they would like or believe.  For Afghanistan, there are rival claims by the Taliban, by the Haqqani network, and by some neighbors.  For Pakistan, the government does not even control elements of the government—the notorious ISI.  And in bin Laden it had a rogue actor residing within its territory claiming authority over residents of Pakistan and far beyond.  Now that that rogue actor is dead, but there are other elements within Pakistan that contest government authority.  

The real irony is that both countries need outside help to credibly demonstrate sovereignty -- assistance that undermines their legitimacy and leadership, rendering the latter more defensive about violations.