Hardly a day goes by without reports highlighting Pakistan’s mounting instability or the growing strength of the Taliban inside its troubled borders. From the media and high-profile observers alike, doomsday scenarios abound. U.S. army general David Petraeus has called the Taliban an “existential threat” to the Pakistani state. His adviser on counterinsurgency in Iraq, David Kilcullen, has warned more chillingly that Pakistan could fall within six months.
The question being asked increasingly is whether Pakistan is on the verge of becoming a failed state, where the writ of both the government in Islamabad and the army will be confined to some of its provinces, namely Punjab and parts of the Sindh and the northern areas; moreover, short of Yugoslavia-style fragmentation, will we see autonomous regions with urban fiefdoms controlled by various militant Islamic groups and even secular gangs?
Signpost for the Future?
The Taliban in Pakistan, which is a loosely defined grouping comprising several Pashtun tribal bands based in different areas of the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) and NWFP (North-west Frontier Provinces) are in the ascendant. They have several strategies, only two or three of which have to work to achieve additional territory in the contested NWFP. They leverage local demands (i.e. exploiting anti-landlord sentiment in the Swat area), pursue soft control of urban areas, exploit sectarian, primarily anti-Shia conflict, create the appearance of a united front, and press for compromise arrangements which provide face-saving ways for the government to allow de facto and implicit control and governance to pass to the Taliban.
Some alarmist reports raise the possibility that, with Islamabad less than 100 miles from the troubled Swat region in Pakistan’s north-west, parts of the country’s nuclear apparatus – fissile material and other components, human and material – could fall to the Taliban and its Al Qaeda allies.
But the rise of the Taliban in the NWFP implies neither its imminent takeover of nor its ability to break up the Pakistani state. Pakistan has one of the largest standing armies in the world. And its elite Strategic Plans Division, set up in the wake of revelations about the dissemination of Pakistan’s nuclear secrets, maintains an iron grip over all security aspects of the nuclear programme.
The likelihood that Al Qaeda could topple the military-bureaucratic state order by sheer force of its terrorist activity is negligible. While terrorism, lacking popular support, is bound to be a problematic for the Pakistani state, it is not an existential threat.
What is more likely is the steady penetration of Islamism in Pakistan’s cultural, educational and political system. Pakistan is shifting rightward towards an Islamist nationalism that bodes ill for its integration into the global economic system and its relations with the West, and the United States in particular.
Legitimate concerns remain about the strength of the polity itself. The secular political establishment is dominated by two main parties, both run as political fiefdoms by their respective leaders. Pakistan faces a chronic leadership deficit that exacerbates the perception of political instability and deters foreign direct investment. The army, which contributed to the stifling of Pakistani democracy over six decades, can neither effectively rule nor galvanize the country for any significant period without sacrificing its own institutional legitimacy.
Compounding the uneasy relationship between civil and military authority is a demographic time bomb. Pakistan’s young population is skyrocketing, set to grow to 250 million by 2030 and 300 million by 2050. The country is also stuck in a poverty cycle and is unable to provide proper healthcare, education and jobs for much of its poor population, including many rural women; the country’s birth rate is a high 4.1 children per family, in contrast to much lower rates in neighbouring Iran (under 2.0) and in Bangladesh (3.0).
Moreover, Pakistan’s problems are not selfcontained. This bulge of uneducated young people provides fodder for extremists within Pakistan, who spill over into neighbouring countries like Afghanistan (also with a high population growth) and India, or head further afield to the UK and Europe.
Some see rapid population growth aBs providing the human capital for transforming the country into an economic powerhouse, one which could excel in producing goods and services, first for its huge domestic market and then for export. Yet the important question now is not whether Pakistan has the capacity for such success, but whether it can avert failure and continue to muddle through at a 3–5% growth rate. Doing so requires significant near-term donor aid from its allies.
Fortunately, Pakistan does not face any meaningful external threats. Though much is said about the military challenge from India, Pakistan’s neighbour would not benefit strategically from either additional territory or Pakistan’s further descent into chaos; India’s self-interest lies in a peace process that leads to a more stable and prosperous neighbour.
The country’s saving grace is arguably its people. As the consequences sink in among Pakistan’s secular elite of the Taliban takeover of Swat, there are signs that the country’s educated class – in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi, cities rocked recently by terrorist attacks – islosing its patience with radicalism. They could compel the government to take more decisive action. In a sense, the question is whether – and when – the Taliban and other radical Islamist groups will provoke a counter-reaction among the wider population that could in turn usher in a new era of stability.
In the near term, it remains likely that Pakistan can muddle through. In the longer run, Islamabad may even tolerate strict Islamic law in the fringe areas where the Taliban are strong – in FATA, NWFP, Balochistan, parts of the northern areas and even the Pashtun neighbourhoods of Karachi.
But the state is likely to hold together in any event, with the army retaining full control over its nuclear arsenal.
Jonathan Paris is a London-based political analyst and an associate fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London. =
The Crisis in Pakistan:
Below is Jonathan Paris’ presentation about the current crisis in Pakistan on April 30 at for the James Chace Lecture series at Bard College of Globalization and International Affairs in New York City.
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