November 20, 2001


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Brahma Chellaney

Pakistan's uncertain future

Much before America's declaration of war on terrorism forced Islamabad to turn against its own creation, the Taleban, Pakistan faced an uncertain future. The events since September 2001 have cast further doubt on the political stability and internal cohesion of the world's seventh most populous nation, which has both terrorists and nuclear weapons on its territory.

America's use of the Pakistani military regime against the Taleban is the most bitter pill Pakistan has had to swallow in its history, spurring renewed social ferment and raising the spectre of civil and military disturbances striking at the nation's very foundations. Its society has never been more polarised between pro-Islamist masses and modernist elites -- a division that runs through its most powerful and only undamaged institution, the military.

Even among the elite, the mood has changed dramatically in the past two months as the country's fortunes have swung pendulum-like. After the military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, went out on a limb to support the US war in Afghanistan, many influential Pakistanis were elated that their country was being internationally wooed. Now, as abruptly as the original events, Afghanistan-related developments have turned against Pakistan's interests and undercut its lynchpin role in the US military strategy.

After being a major power broker and then an imperial power in Afghanistan, with its own surrogate regime in Kabul, Pakistan today stands completely isolated in that landlocked nation. Such is its isolation, with no Afghan faction wanting to be associated with it, that Pakistan is a political liability in the current US-led task of forming a broad-based, multi-ethnic government in Kabul. And such has been the reversal in the situation that the large numbers of Pakistani jihadis who swelled the ranks of the Taleban face slaughter and imprisonment in Afghanistan. No Pakistani, not even a journalist, can dare to openly function in Afghanistan today.

Pakistan's strategic value for the US military campaign in Afghanistan also stands seriously eroded. Now that American, British and French troops have started to operate from inside Afghanistan, controlling the bases they use, Pakistan no longer is an indispensable partner in the US-led anti-terror campaign. After having offered all sorts of inducements to Pakistan, the Americans can now carry a smaller carrot but a bigger stick in handling the procreator of the Taleban.

The fall of Kabul has transformed the situation so radically that Musharraf must be a highly troubled man. In September, the United States needed him as the central element in its anti-Taleban offensive. Today, it is Musharraf who needs the United States as his central benefactor and shield. The more powers Musharraf has usurped and the more military rivals he has got rid off, the more dependent he has become on American protection in Pakistan's highly combustible political environment. It is only a matter of time before the Taleban remnants now infiltrating into Pakistani tribal zones, and Islamists within his own military, turn on Musharraf.

Pakistan seems headed for more domestic turmoil. It is already being described as a "Colombia with nukes and Islamic fundamentalism" and concern has grown that it could become the world's first failed nuclear state.

Pakistan's jihad culture has created a plethora of radical Islamic groups, many of them involved in the export of narcotics and terrorism. Thriving on Afghanistan's opium production, Pakistan's drug czars boast of their links with Islamic extremists and cater to the needs of heroin addicts in the West and their country, home to the largest presumed population of heroin addicts in the world. Breaking the close links of the Pakistani military and its Inter-Services Intelligence with such narco-terrorist forces will prove difficult.

What has made Pakistan's radicalisation difficult to reverse is that it has the imprimatur of religion, the most powerful force on earth. The concept of jihad has no provision for a pause or cessation or retraction. Jihad is supposed to be a fight to the finish. Once you declare jihad, you are part of it until victory is yours or martyrdom takes you to paradise.

The danger, therefore, is that even without the Taleban in Afghanistan, the 'Talebanisation' of Pakistan may continue unless the government there is forced by international pressure to begin systematically tearing down the Islamist and terrorist complexes and to gradually root out extremists from the military, intelligence and bureaucracy. Entire echelons of the army and ISI officer corps have developed a Taleban-like mindset.

For long, the export of jihad has been an indispensable component of Pakistan's state power because it is a cheap way to bleed India continually. The Pakistan-assisted American success in bleeding the Soviets in Afghanistan emboldened Islamabad to try and replicate the experiment in Kashmir. When the insurgency in Kashmir began to wane after a decade of Pakistani sponsorship, Pakistan changed tactics in 1999 and began sending in Pakistani and Afghan commandos to carry out suicide attacks on Indian government and military targets.

In modern history, no state has pursued a sustained indirect war of the scope and extent waged by Pakistan against India. Nor has any state tolerated a situation for so long as India, where its security has been progressively impaired through externally sponsored subversion and clandestine war. The cumulative costs of such indirect war for India have been far greater than all the direct wars it has fought since Independence.

Despite the new international faith in the Pakistani military's ability to moderate the radical currents sweeping through its society, Pakistan illustrates the opposite case: fundamentalism and militarism feed on each other, with the Islamists and the military serving as partners in the black trade, including drug- and gun-running, protection of domestic bandits, and export of terror. It should not be forgotten that Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism in Pakistan were bred by the military regime of General Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, who received multi-billion-dollar US military and economic aid packages during his 11-year rule.

Even Musharraf, the self-touted moderate whose hand Clinton declined to shake in public during his Pakistan stopover in March 2000, did not baulk at publicly proclaiming jihad as an instrument of the state -- the only ruler of a Muslim state to do so. In the name of fighting Islamists, Musharraf has purged the military of his rivals, including those who staged the coup and enthroned him.

Pakistan confronts a serious crisis today, with its fate once again in the hands of three As -- Allah, Army and America. If the United States stays engaged in Pakistan, it could help to begin a process to de-radicalise the state. The reform process has to include the closure of the country's 4,000 or so madrasas, the religious schools that serve as hotbeds of pro-terrorist sentiment, and the introduction of universal secular education. Such US engagement could also help to reduce Islamabad's growing strategic dependence on India's other main rival, China, besides stemming Pakistan's slide towards becoming a nuclear-armed Somalia.

Pakistan's drift towards disorder has spurred the threat of it losing some of its "crown jewels" -- nuclear weapons -- to jihadi elements, a scenario in which US commandos may have to pre-emptively seize and secure all such arms. Nuclear weapons were supposed to be Pakistan's most precious strategic assets. But in Pakistan's volatile political climate, they are proving a strategic liability, endangering internal and regional security and prompting the US to prepare contingency plans for their evacuation for safekeeping in the event of cataclysmic political events.

The threat to divest Pakistan of its 'crown jewels' was cleverly used by the United States first to force Gen Musharraf to support its military campaign in Afghanistan and then to warn would-be coup plotters against Musharraf.

Nothing can be more potent than the mix of terrorism and nuclear dangers characterising Pakistan's situation. Controlling that lethal mix will prove a daunting task since Pakistan links nuclear weapons with its sovereignty and survival. It will stoutly oppose any Western-aided transparency and physical-security measures that could dilute the secrecy surrounding its nuclear storage and deployment practices.

The international community cannot turn a blind eye to the nuclear dangers inherent in the unstable situation in Pakistan, where the government could possibly lose control of parts of the nuclear programme during political turmoil. Adequate security, including physical protection of assets, can be ensured only when the government is in complete control of nuclear weapons and materials. When danger lurks of renegade Islamist elements within the military, intelligence and nuclear establishment seizing control of some nuclear assets or even seizing power, the risks of nuclear blackmail and terror cannot be effectively contained.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of security studies at the independent Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, contributes regularly to

Brahma Chellaney

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