31 Aug 2021 23:05 IST

Muck-ups are universal and constant across the world

Leadership failures and mismanagement have been responsible for some of the worst humanitarian crises in history

This week in The Hindu BusinessLine, I wrote an opinion column describing the West's muck-up in Afghanistan. The term was popularised in the famous blockbuster, For Your Eyes Only (1981), when James Bond gets a call from M, who admonishes him for not catching a crook the first time, “And 007, try not to muck it up again!”

In India and many other developing countries, we detest leaders for corruption, nepotism, or advancing self-interest. But what we are critical of are the underlying muck-ups that are systemic and define the ruling class. The result has been that development progress has been slow, taking decades, with little to show for all that has been spent. For proof, visit the hinterlands 50 miles away from any major metro.

Countless ramifications

In the last 100 years, since democracy became the default form of governance, millions of people have died, many millions more wounded, and trillions of dollars have been lost. Many of these failures can be traced to muck-up after muck-up and the sheer incompetence of our so-called leaders — the kind that gets you fired from a job or ends a career if not sent to jail.

Government employees never need to worry about getting fired or going to jail for discharging their duties. In the US, the WestFall Act protects employees from common law tort lawsuits. All governments provide this blanket protection to their ilk. The extended immunity is absolute, even when a government official uses discretion to conduct his duties or does not act at all.

One of the biggest muck-ups in human history happened with the Durand line in 1893. The British trusted their civil service officers so much that they commissioned Sir Henry Mortimer Durand to work with Abdur Rahman Khan, the Afghan Emir, to draw a line through the Pashtun peoples and create a geopolitical mess that culminated in the Americans withdrawing from Afghanistan this week. It is little wonder that this mountainous landmass has a well-earned nickname: The graveyard of empires.

Tribal conflict is as old as humanity itself, but the British firmly believed it could all be managed by a piece of paper and pen. The BBC says that a map marked in 1916 with a simple chinagraph pencil by Mark Sykes, representing the British government, and Francois Georges-Picot, from the French government, helped create the modern-day Middle East. No region in the world is more unstable than West Asia.

Large scale muck-ups

In 1947, the raw ambition of Muhamed Ali Jinnah to create a Muslim nation and the blatant eagerness of our leaders to finally assume power of a free India resulted in the most significant muck-up of all — Partition. The resulting misery for millions of people in the world's poorest region forced the largest involuntary migration in history. Seventy-five years later, one country is a relatively successful player in the world of nations, but the other is a completely failed state.

Wars fought to teach lessons to dictators have invariably failed and are the root cause of the world's biggest muck-ups. Today, North Korea and South Korea remain divided. One country is a wealthy and prosperous nation, the other a rogue country run by a cabal of sycophants with people dying because of poverty, hunger, and lack of access to public health.

The US and Iraq were among the friendliest of nations after Iran fell to the mullahs in 1979. Even Saddam Hussein was on solid terms with the US during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war because America chose the lesser of two evils for its benevolence. Indeed, so confident was Hussain that he invaded Kuwait, never expecting any backlash. Suddenly, smitten by a sense of morality and the fall of the Soviet empire in Afghanistan, which lifted America as the world's sole superpower, George Bush (41) decided to wage war in the Gulf. In the last 50 years, this was probably the only just use of military force. Wisely, he didn't embark on nation-building.

In contrast, the second Gulf war was a classic case of large-scale muck-ups based on faulty intelligence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He never had any.

Last US troops withdraw

The original Afghan Mission after 9/11 was to hold the Taliban accountable for their support of Al-Qaeda. Strangely, both Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar escaped the American onslaught. Bin Laden took refuge in Pakistan and was later killed by US Navy SEALs. Yet, in another high-profile muck-up, America, rather than punishing Pakistan for shielding Bin Laden, continues to pour billions of dollars into the county, counting it as an ally, fearful of the latter's nuclear weapon arsenal.

Back to Afghanistan, America's and NATO's 20-year effort in Afghanistan cost nearly $2 trillion before their hasty and turbulent withdrawal. This week the status quo of 09/11 is back with the Taliban ruling over Afghanistan, but with billions of dollars in sophisticated western weaponry on hand. Worse, the exit of the Western powers has left behind millions of Afghans who feel entitled to a freer life and demand to be resettled in more liberal democracies of the West. Unfortunately, countries do not have room to accommodate an entire nation of 37 million in their folds.

If you are part of the 99.99 per cent of the global population that had nothing to do with any of these muck-ups, you can sleep well tonight with no guilt. That sense of relief is the only gratifying thought, however. It is hard to take the bar any lower.