Policies can be good or bad but this distinction is of little relevance when the state simply lacks the will or the capacity to take substantive action. The popular discourse in Pakistan has long been characterised by a paradoxical approach to the question of state power; on the one hand, widespread corruption and endemic institutional dysfunction are seen as being symptomatic of state weakness while on the other hand, the state is constantly expected to deliver good governance that is sensitive to, and informed by, the concerns and interests of the citizenry. The resolution of this paradox lies in the observation that, like Schrodinger’s cat, the state is neither competent nor inept in an absolute sense, possessing the ability to take either of these forms depending on the matter under consideration.

This is perhaps best demonstrated by the consistent cry for the proverbial ‘writ of the state’ to be applied in the ongoing battle against extremism. It is usually assumed that vacuums created by the abdication of state responsibility, in terms of the provision of security and goods and services, foments militancy, with entrepreneurs of violence and their organisations capitalising on feelings of discontent and marginalisation to recruit supporters. Following from this, it is argued that if the state were to intervene to fill these vacuums, through the use of force to secure its authority and the provision of accountable and participatory governance to acquire legitimacy, the issue would be resolved.

This sounds intuitively plausible but, in the case of Pakistan, both the diagnosis of the problem and the proposed remedy suffer from a fundamental misunderstanding of the role played by the state in this context. Attributing the rise of militancy to the absence of the state simply ignores the historical reality that violent organisations have been tolerated, and indeed, sustained by the Pakistani state for the better part of forty years, with strategic considerations in Afghanistan and Kashmir underpinning the decision to cultivate these proxies. Rather than being the result of negligence, the presence of these organisations owes itself to the active involvement of the state.

This view of the state – accusing it of inadvertent complicity in the spread of domestic militancy – has important implications for the question of how to deal with organisations and individuals engaged in propagating terror. For instance, rather than calling for the enforcement of the ‘writ of the state’, it instead suggests that a critical appraisal be made of precisely what the state’s priorities and objectives are. After all, policy measures aimed at neutralising the threat posed by the extremist organisations are hardly likely to succeed if the state has little desire or incentive to implement them effectively, and if the state’s strategic mindset remains unchanged. The issue thus becomes one of political will, and how it can be marshaled and channeled, rather than one of capacity.

Reorienting the question around the formulation and expression of political will also helps in understanding the state’s selective efficiency. Prima facie, the state’s arbitrary deployment of its coercive power to police the boundaries of what is or is not acceptable defies rational explanation. ‘Liberal’ bloggers can disappear for weeks and be tarred with unsubstantiated accusations of blasphemy and treason even as known militant leaders continue to operate and spew venom with impunity. Anti-terror laws can be used to persecute trade unionists and progressive activists while dozens of people implicated in collective acts of violence against minorities can be freed for lack of evidence. Television anchors and certifiable lunatics wearing funny red hats can invite an audience of millions to rain death and destruction upon those they disagree with while satirical websites criticising the government are shut down without warning. None of this makes sense unless it is recognised that the state’s ability to act is dependent on its desire, rather than its capacity, to do so.

There is an alternative explanation that can be offered here, one that is often trotted out by apologists for the status quo. It is argued that the state acts where it can, essentially picking low-hanging fruit as it consolidates its power and waits for an opportune moment to strike against its more powerful domestic foes. As such, if certain militant organisations and leaders continue to operate with brazen impunity, and if other preachers of hate and purveyors of bigotry openly crow about their invincibility, it is only because they represent forces it would be unwise to disturb at the present juncture. Their time will come once the state has overcome the more immediate obstacles it faces.

This would make sense if not for the utter lack of evidence suggesting the existence of such a strategy. De-radicalisation is an interesting case in point; while it is universally acknowledged that the problem of extremism is not just one of guns and logistics, and that active measures must be taken to challenge the radical religious ideology used by extremists to justify and legitimise their actions, the government has shown little inclination to do anything in this regard. Instead, as the past few weeks have once again demonstrated, considerable effort has been expended to repeat the tired old tropes of the past; ‘liberals’ and ‘secularists’ are foreign-funded traitors, and militants are agents of hostile foreign powers (unless, of course, they talk about Kashmir in which case they are philanthropists and charity workers). To accuse the state of not creating a counter-narrative is inaccurate. It is just the wrong counter-narrative.

None of this suggests that the state in Pakistan does not face real constraints in terms of its capacity and technical ability. The dismal state of the bureaucracy and the police is evidence enough of the need for urgent institutional reform but even here, the question of political will is paramount; political parties that come into power on the basis of corrupt networks of patronage and rent-seeking are hardly like to change a system they benefit from. This is also why the liberal impulse to call for the rule of law must be carefully articulated; while it makes sense for the government to be asked to enforce recently passed laws concerning the protection of women, for example, the same argument could be employed to justify the implementation of draconian ones like the infamous Cybercrime Bill and even the blasphemy law. Again, the differing fortunes of these laws – with those related to women existing only on the statute books while ones pertaining to surveillance and the use of state coercion being vigorously pursued – is indicative of how the question must necessarily be framed around what the state should be doing rather than what it can do.