It is a peculiar argument, in large part because very few people actually do consider Pakistan a failed state. That said, it is unclear what most people really do fear is likely to happen in Pakistan. We can, however, suggest a few plausible scenarios.
Those most sanguine about the future of Pakistan tend to make the following claims: (1) Pakistan is a modern state with a strong civil society and a powerful military; (2) the Islamic radicals operating along the border with Afghanistan are relatively small in number and are generally quite unpopular. As a consequence, it is tremendously unlikely that any faction or factions of Islamist radicals could actually seize power.
There is also a slightly less sanguine group of analysts who largely accept the above arguments, but are nonetheless skeptical of the capacity of President Zaidari’s government. These analysts ultimately believe that in the worst case scenario, all we’d see is another military takeover (which would be the 4th since 1958) which would lead to the rapid suppression of the Islamist radicals.
The first argument is almost certainly accurate. The chances of the Pakistani Taliban marching into Islamabad and seizing control of the government are vanishingly small. The second argument is more problematic. It assumes, ultimately, that the military could stamp out Islamist radicals quite easily. The current hard fighting in the Swat valley calls that assumption into question.
There remain, in addition, three additional scenarios that could result in unpredictable consequences:
1. It is likely that we are over-estimating the capabilities and cohesion of the Pakistani military. Insurgencies are notably difficult to defeat, and the Pakistani military is neither trained nor equipped for counter-insurgency operations. Its heavy-handed approach to current operations in the Swat valley follow a classic pattern of overuse of deadly force in counter-insurgency operations that serve to strengthen rather than suppress insurgent movements. In addition, we simply do not know how reliable the Pakistani military would be in the context of a domestic conflict. Traditionally, the collapse of military authority during a civil conflict is not gradual, nor it is often visible beforehand. On the contrary, all it often takes is a single unit to refuse orders to set off a very rapid chain reaction where all units are forced to make a choice to embrace a new order or defend the old. Most analysts considered the Iranian military to be reliable up until elements of the Iranian Air Force defected to the Islamists in early 1979. The situations are not identical, but we should be very cautious about the assumption that the Pakistani military will be either able or willing to suppress the Islamist radicals indefinitely.
2. Radical groups often come to power not through conquest nor through elections (though there are examples of both historically), but rather through subversion after having been granted a role in governance. Establishment officials are often tempted to create coalition government and power-sharing arrangements on the notion that it is good advice to keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Once inside the halls of power, however, many radical groups work to expand their power and authority and gradually launch an internal coup — examples include the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in 1979 and the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917. Negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban create a pathway for this sort of erosion of state institutions from within.
3. It is often a mistake to assume that because a situation is bad, it is unlikely to get worse. Indeed, when Islamist radicals were operating only in the Northwest Provinces and Federally Administered Tribal areas, optimists argued that they were a localized threat made possible solely by virtue of the lack of government control over those areas. When the radicals moved into the Swat Valley, it was again seen as a localized dynamic, driven by ethnic identity and local issues are much as anything else. In short, conventional wisdom has tended to minimize the potential potency of the Islamist movement by stressing the role of local conditions. The problem is that the strength of radical and revolutionary movements is deceptive. For those outside — like most Pakistani government officials and scholars studying the region — the appeal of the radicals is hard to fathom. It is, as a result, both convenient and comforting to ascribe any successes of the movement to local conditions. Unfortunately, trendlines suggest that we need to take seriously the possibility that the radical Islamist movement in Pakistan has real legs, and that it feeds off structural conditions such as corruption in Pakistan as well as a high level of enthusiasm and commitment from those within its ranks. In short, while there is no reason to panic, we need to also resist the temptation to simply look for reasons to dismiss the threat posed by groups loosely affiliated under the banner of the Pakistani Taliban.
In the short run, collapse of military discipline and internal subversion are more likely pathways to an Islamist takeover in Pakistan than either electoral success or conquest. We need to watch for both these possibilities. In the long run, however, we should spend some time trying to explain the durability and potential growth path of radical groups rather than just looking for reasons to dismiss the threat.