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Saturday, Nov. 10, 2001

Pakistan's uncertain future

NEW DELHI -- Much before America's declaration of war on terrorism forced Islamabad to turn against its own creation, the Taliban, Pakistan faced an uncertain future. During a four-hour stop in Islamabad in March 2000, U.S. President Bill Clinton warned Pakistanis in a televised address about the "obstacles to your progress, including violence and extremism," saying "there is a danger that Pakistan may grow even more isolated, draining even more resources away from the needs of the people, moving even closer to a conflict no one can win."

The events since September 2001 have cast further doubt on Pakistan's political stability and internal cohesion. Almost 55 years after its creation, Pakistan remains a state of five tribes in search of a national identity. The only distinguishing characteristic of the Pakistani state is its obsession with the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir -- an issue that not only helps define Pakistan's identity but also serves as the glue holding its fractious society together.

America's use of the Pakistani military regime against the Taliban is the most bitter pill Pakistan has had to swallow in its history, spurring renewed social ferment and raising the specter of civil and military disturbances striking at the nation's very foundations. The radicalization of Pakistani society, and the ensuing spread of the jihad culture since the 1980s, pose serious regional and international challenges, as Pakistan has both terrorists and nuclear weapons on its territory.

Military rule has served as one more negative label conjuring up images of fanaticism, terrorism and gun-toting mullahs about the world's seventh most populous nation. Pakistan has been described as a "Colombia with nukes and Islamic fundamentalism," and concern has grown that it could become the world's first failed nuclear state. It thus seems odd that this country should become a critical ally of the United States in the war on terrorism.

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. Pakistan's military and its Inter-Services Intelligence agency, closely tied to such "narco-terrorist" forces, have been loath to rein in the jihad culture because they want to pay India back for the 1971 Indian-assisted secession of East Pakistan. In the process, however, Pakistan has created a monster that is eating more into its vitals than into India's.

What has made this radicalization difficult to reverse is that it has the imprimatur of religion. 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 Taliban in Afghanistan, the "Talibanization" of Pakistan may continue unless the government there begins systematically tearing down the Islamist and terrorist complexes and gradually roots out extremists from the military, intelligence and bureaucracy. Entire echelons of the army and ISI officer corps have developed a Taliban-like mind set.

The export of jihad has long been an indispensable component of Pakistan's state power because it is a cheap way to continually bleed India. The Pakistani-assisted American success in bleeding the Soviets in Afghanistan emboldened Islamabad to try to 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 its independence.

Now that it is a member of the international antiterror coalition, however, the Pakistani government will find it increasingly difficult to continue to employ terrorism exports as an instrument of state policy. The logic of what Pakistan has been forced to do against the Taliban will in due course catch up with its own policies. But even then, matching logic with action could prove problematic. It will be tough for the government to effectively crack down on militant and terrorist groups, as recalcitrant elements in the Pakistani establishment will continue to provide succor to them. In fact, the war next door in Afghanistan and the activities of homegrown extremists are likely to exacerbate the sectarian and ethnic fissures within Pakistani society.

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

Even the present military dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the self-touted moderate whose hand Clinton declined to shake in public during his Pakistan stopover, did not balk at publicly proclaiming jihad as an instrument of state. 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 A's -- Allah, the army and America. If the United States stays engaged in Pakistan, it could help to begin a process to deradicalize 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 proterrorist sentiment, and the introduction of universal secular education. Such U.S. engagement could also help reduce Islamabad's growing strategic dependence on India's other main rival, China, besides stemming Pakistan's slide toward becoming a nuclear-armed Somalia.

Pakistan's drift toward disorder has spurred the threat of its losing some of its "crown jewels" -- nuclear weapons -- to jihad elements, a scenario in which U.S. 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 highly combustible political climate, they are proving a strategic liability, endangering internal and regional security and prompting the U.S. military 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 U.S., first to force 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 characterizing 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.

Given its narrow strategic waistline, Pakistan has emphasized offense, including pre-emption, in its conventional military and nuclear doctrines. It has thus rejected India's offer of a no-first-use nuclear pact and maintained a first-use posture, integrating its small nuclear arsenal with its war-fighting strategy. It has been clear since Pakistan's Kargil invasion into India in 1999 -- a year after the two nations went overtly nuclear -- that classical nuclear-deterrence theory makes little regional sense in the context of a sinking state that values nuclear weapons as a shield for military adventurism. The published official Indian inquiry into why the military could not deter the Kargil invasion, however, failed to address this question.

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 program 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. Fissile material or radioactive waste can be employed crudely for spreading terror.

The detention and interrogation of some Pakistani nuclear scientists for alleged links with the Taliban and al-Qaeda has to be seen against the background of Pakistan's own jihad culture, the strength of Islamists within its military and nuclear-weapons establishment, and the origins of the Pakistani program rooted in nuclear smuggling and espionage -- elements that reinforce the present nuclear dangers. Add to that the visits of Saudi and United Arab Emirates officials to Pakistan's nuclear complex in Kahuta in May 1999, and deals between that center and North Korea -- both reported by U.S. intelligence.

In the competition between status-quo India and irredentist Pakistan, the dispute over Kashmir (one-fifth of which is occupied by China) is likely to fester. When two sides cannot resolve a dispute, they should find ways to manage it. But given Pakistan's fragile domestic situation, it will not be easy to manage the Kashmir problem or douse all the jihad fires in the coming years. More than Kashmir, Pakistan's descent into deepening turmoil demands greater international attention.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of security studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, contributes regularly to The Japan Times.

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