Crickets and Carrots in South Asia

Terrorists in Lahore today snuck up on, circled, and executed a chilling attack on the Sri Lankan national cricket team, resulting in the death of foreign guests, civilians, and Pakistani police. Just as different Pakistan-based terrorists did in Mumbai in November 2008, this attack was targeted, well-conceived, and executed with brilliant precision. Reports on BBC and NPR both confirm that the perpetrators literally disappeared into the crowds, slithering away as if it were a scene out of a motion picture. What they left behind, however, everyone can understand.

My first emotion upon hearing this news was sadness. For a region totally devoted to cricket, regular Pakistani citizens who work hard during the day and live for cricket matches will now be stripped of one of the only entertainment outlets they have in their country. And, sadness for the Sri Lankan team, their fans, and the citizens of their small island nation who, mired in their own civil conflicts, and with a huge neighbor in between them, may have little recourse in finding justice in this particular event. The cowardliness in attacking a nation that will not realistically fight back is apparent; had these rebels attacked the Indian cricket team, God only knows what could have transpired as tensions are already so raw in the South Asian region.

Gruesome as the conditions, however, there may be a lesson in today’s attacks that could potentially turn the tide in Pakistan. Now that no foreign team is likely to venture to Pakistan for matches, the fans of cricket in Pakistan will undoubtedly grow restless that a few bad apples have cost them their only real venue for live and peaceful entertainment. The economist Hernando de Soto believes that one of the major factors that promotes the development of terrorism is the lack of enforceable property rights — without an economic incentive tied to a home or other venture, someone without the means of investing in and liquidating their own assets has, in effect, less to lose. de Soto has his critics, to be sure, but for the sake of argument, could the suspension of international cricket have similar effects?

Probably not. In fact, with the thousands of emails pouring in, it’s clear that Pakistani cricket fans not only feel embarrassed and sad that this sort of event happened on their soil, but looking down the road, they realize that they are now stripped of one of the things that truly make them happy, their diversion during uncertain economic times. It is possible, instead, that this event crystallizes the effects — and, more importantly, the costs — associated with terrorism for Pakistani citizens. Terrorism, we know, negatively effects foreign direct investment, tourism, and other drivers of economic development. It has tremendous social ramifications, preying on the weak, the disaffected. But, now that terrorism can strip a nation of its international cricket presence, the entire game may have changed.

I can imagine a scenario unfolding in Pakistan where their citizens, the law-abiding peaceful Muslims who feel there is no recourse with their government, with their military, and who are simply trying to live a good life, are finally fed up now. Dampen their economic activity, and they will adapt. Cozy up to the Taliban but take American aid to fight terrorism, and they will claim that the tribal areas are generally ungovernable. Take away their diversion, however, their national pride, and you’ve hit a raw nerve that could have interesting effects. Pakistanis may now realize that terrorism effects them in more than just economic ways, and while their government and military cannot ensure 100% safety, that they as citizens must demand it — or else international cricket will never be played in Lahore again.

In singling out a cricket team for their attacks, terrorists may have bowled themselves in the foot. This attack, though minimal in terms of casualties, hit a nerve so raw in the region that rabid fans may collectively organize to rid their land of the religious schools and armies that recruit the disaffected to carry out their missions. Again, one has to realize how thin the ice is in this region; had this attack been carried out on the Indian national cricket team, I would wager that it would provoke direct retaliation — maybe even war — between the two countries.

In a twisted way, cricket may end up acting as the “carrot” to entice Pakistan and its citizens to deal more forcefully with elements on the fringe of its borders and in the northern mountains. This carrot may, thankfully, be more attractive than any “stick” the international community could use. Let’s see what transpires…

I’m reminded of an insightful letter posted in the New Yorker in response to George Packer’s reaction to the Mumbai attacks in November 2008. The writer says: “A wise diplomat had characterized Pakistan as different from most countries, which, when they become independent, look for an army to protect them; Pakistan is an army looking for a country to defend.” Perhaps that is slightly unfair, but given events even from the past six months, one cannot help but wonder how the country and its citizenry will respond when a new type of terrorism, international in scope and spread through all media outlets, comes home to roost.