What's new

Armageddon at the Top of the World: Not!


Apr 24, 2007
Armageddon at the Top of the World: Not!

A century of frenzy over the nonexistent threat of the Pashtuns.
—By Juan Cole

Mon July 27, 2009

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

WHAT, what, what,
What's the news from Swat?
Sad news,
Bad news,
Comes by the cable led
Through the Indian Ocean's bed,
Through the Persian Gulf, the Red
Sea and the Med-
Iterranean — he 's dead;
The Ahkoond is dead!

— George Thomas Lanigan

Despite being among the poorest people in the world, the inhabitants of the craggy northwest of what is now Pakistan have managed to throw a series of frights into distant Western capitals for more than a century. That's certainly one for the record books.

And it hasn't ended yet. Not by a long shot. Not with the headlines in the U.S. papers about the depredations of the Pakistani Taliban, not with the CIA's drone aircraft striking gatherings in Waziristan and elsewhere near the Afghan border. This spring, for instance, one counter-terrorism analyst stridently (and wholly implausibly) warned that "in one to six months" we could "see the collapse of the Pakistani state," at the hands of the bloodthirsty Taliban, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the situation in Pakistan a "mortal danger" to global security.

What most observers don't realize is that the doomsday rhetoric about this region at the top of the world is hardly new. It's at least 100 years old. During their campaigns in the northwest in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, British officers, journalists and editorialists sounded much like American strategists, analysts, and pundits of the present moment. They construed the Pashtun tribesmen who inhabited Waziristan as the new Normans, a dire menace to London that threatened to overturn the British Empire.

The young Winston S. Churchill even wrote a book in 1898, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, about a late-nineteenth-century British campaign in Pashtun territory, based on his earlier journalism there. At that time, London ruled British India, comprising all of what is now India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, but the British hold on the mountainous northwestern region abutting Afghanistan and the Himalayas was tenuous. In trying to puzzle out — like modern analysts — why the predecessors of the Pakistani Taliban posed such a huge challenge to empire, Churchill singled out two reasons for the martial prowess of those Pashtun tribesmen. One was Islam, of which he wrote, "That religion, which above all others was founded and propagated by the sword — the tenets and principles of which are instinct with incentives to slaughter and which in three continents has produced fighting breeds of men — stimulates a wild and merciless fanaticism."

Churchill actually revealed his prejudices here. In fact, for the most part, Islam spread peacefully in what is now Pakistan, by the preaching and poetry of mystical Sufi leaders, and most Muslims have not been more warlike in history than, for example, Anglo-Saxons.

For his second reason, he settled on the environment in which those tribesmen were supposed to thrive. "The inhabitants of these wild but wealthy valleys" are, he explained, in "a continual state of feud and strife." In addition, he insisted, they were early adopters of military technology, so that their weapons were not as primitive as was common among other "races" at what he referred to as "their stage" of development. "To the ferocity of the Zulu are added the craft of the Redskin and the marksmanship of the Boer," he warned.

In these tribesmen, he concluded, "the world is presented with that grim spectacle, 'the strength of civilization without its mercy.'" The Pashtun were, he added, excellent marksmen, who could fell the unwary Westerner with a state-of-the-art breech-loading rifle. "His assailant, approaching, hacks him to death with the ferocity of a South-Sea Islander. The weapons of the nineteenth century are in the hands of the savages of the Stone Age."

Ironically, given Churchill's description of them, when four decades later the Pashtuns joined the freedom movement against British rule that led to the formation of independent Pakistan and India in 1947, politicized Pashtuns were notable not for savagery, but for joining Mahatma Gandhi's campaign of non-violent non-cooperation.

Nevertheless, the Churchillian image of primitive, fanatical brutality armed with cutting edge technology, which singled Pashtuns out as an extraordinary peril to the West, survived the Victorian era and has now made it into the headlines of our own newspapers. Bruce Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst, was tasked by the Obama administration to evaluate security threats in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Arnaud de Borchgrave of the Washington Times reported breathlessly on July 17th that Riedel had concluded:

"A jihadist victory in Pakistan, meaning the takeover of the nation by a militant Sunni movement led by the Taliban... would create the greatest threat the United States has yet to face in its war on terror... [and] is now a real possibility in the foreseeable future."

The article, in true Churchillian fashion, is entitled "Armageddon Alarm Bell Rings."

In fact, few intelligence predictions could have less chance of coming true. In the 2008 parliamentary election, the Pakistani public voted in centrist parties, some of them secular, virtually ignoring the Muslim fundamentalist parties. Today in Pakistan, there are about 24 million Pashtuns, a linguistic ethnic group that speaks Pashto. Another 13 million live across the British-drawn "Durand Line," the border — mostly unacknowledged by Pashtuns — between Pakistan and southern Afghanistan. Most Taliban derive from this group, but the vast majority of Pashtuns are not Taliban and do not much care for the Muslim radicals.

The Taliban force that was handily defeated this spring by the Pakistani army in a swift campaign in the Swat Valley in the North-West Frontier Province, amounted to a mere 4,000 men. The Pakistani military is 550,000 strong and has a similar number of reservists. It has tanks, artillery, and fighter jets. The Taliban's appeal is limited to that country's Pashtun ethnic group, about 14% of the population and, from everything we can tell, it is a minority taste even among them. The Taliban can commit terrorism and destabilize, but they cannot take over the Pakistani government.

Some Western analysts worry that the Taliban could unite with disgruntled junior officers of the Pakistani Army, who could come to power in a putsch and so offer their Taliban allies access to sophisticated weaponry. Successful Pakistani coups, however, have been made by the chief of staff at the top, not by junior officers, since the military is quite disciplined. Far from coup-making to protect the Taliban, the military has actually spent the past year in hard slogging against them in the Federally Administered Tribal Area of Bajaur and more recently in Swat.

Today's fantasy of a nuclear-armed Taliban is the modern equivalent of Churchill's anxiety about those all-conquering, ultramodern Pashtun riflemen with the instincts of savages.

Frontier Ward and Watch

On a recent research trip to the India Office archives in London to plunge into British military memoirs of the Waziristan campaigns in the first half of the twentieth century, I was overcome by a vivid sense of déjà vu. The British in India fought three wars with Afghanistan, losing the first two decisively, and barely achieving a draw in the third in 1919. Among the Afghan king Amanullah's demands during the third war were that the Pashtun tribes of the frontier be allowed to give him their fealty and that Britain permit Afghanistan to conduct a sovereign foreign policy. He lost on the first demand, but won on the second and soon signed a treaty of friendship with the newly established Soviet Union.

Disgruntled Pashtun tribes in Waziristan, a no-man's land sandwiched between the Afghan border and the formal boundary of the British-ruled North-West Frontier Province, preferred Kabul's rule to that of London, and launched their own attacks on the British, beginning in 1919. Putting down the rebellious Wazir and Mahsud tribes of this region would, in the end, cost imperial Britain's treasury three times as much as had the Third Anglo-Afghan War itself.

On May 2, 1921, long after the Pashtun tribesmen should have been pacified, the Manchester Guardian carried a panicky news release by the British Viceroy of India on a Mahsud attack. "Enemy activity continues throughout," the alarmed message from Viceroy Rufus Isaacs, the Marquess of Reading, said, implying that a massive uprising on the subcontinent was underway. In fact, the action at that point was in only a small set of villages in one part of Waziristan, itself but one of several otherwise relatively quiet tribal areas.

On the 23rd of that month, a large band of Mahsud struck "convoys" near the village of Piazha. British losses included a British officer killed, four British and two Indian officers wounded, and seven Indian troops killed, with 26 wounded. On the 24th, "a picket [sentry outpost] near Suidgi was ambushed, and lost nine killed and seven wounded." In nearby Zhob, the British received support from friendly Pashtun tribes engaged in a feud with what they called the "hostiles," and — a modern touch — "aeroplanes" weighed in as well. They were, it was said, "cooperating," though this too was an exaggeration. At the time, the Royal Air Force (RAF) was eager to prove its colonial worth on the imperial frontiers in ways that extended beyond simple reconnaissance, even though in 1921 it maintained but a single airplane at Peshawar, the nearest city, which had "a hole in its wing." By 1925, the RAF had gotten its wish and would drop 150 tons of bombs on the Mahsud tribe.

On July 5, 1921, a newspaper report in the Allahabad Pioneer gives a sense of the tactics the British deployed against the "hostiles." One center of rebellion was the village of Makin, inhabited by that same Mahsud tribe, which apparently wanted its own irrigation system and freedom from British interference. The British Indian army held the nearby village of Ladka. "Makin was shelled from Ladka on the 20th June," the report ran.

The tribal fighters responded by beginning to move their flocks, though their families remained. British archival sources report that a Muslim holy man, or faqir, attempted to give the people of Makin hope by laying a spell on the 6-inch howitzer shells and pledging that they would no longer explode in the valley. (Overblown imperial anxiety about such faqirs or akhonds, Pashtun religious leaders, inspired Victorian satirists such as Edward Lear, who began one poem, "Who, or why, or which, or what, Is the Akond of Swat?")

The faqir's spells were to no avail. The shelling, the Pioneer reported, continued over the next two days, "with good results." Then on the 23rd, "another bombardment of Makin was carried out by our 6-inch howitzers at Ladka." This shelling "had a great moral effect," the newspaper intoned, and revealed with satisfaction that "the inhabitants are now evacuating their families." The particular nature of the moral effect of bombarding a civilian village where women and children were known to be present was not explained. Two days later, however, thanks to air observation, the howitzers at Ladka and the guns at "Piazha camp" made a "direct hit" on another similarly obscure village.

Such accounts of small, vicious engagements in mountainous villages with (to British ears) outlandish names fit oddly with the strange conviction of the elite and the press that the fate of the Empire was somehow at stake — just as strangely as similar reports out of exactly the same area, often involving the very same tribes, do in our own time. On July 7, 2009, for instance, the Pakistani newspaper The Nation published a typical daily report on the Swat valley campaign which might have come right out of the early twentieth century. Keep in mind that this was a campaign into which the Obama administration forced the Pakistani government to save itself and the American position in the Greater Middle East, and which displaced some two million people, risking the actual destabilization of the whole northwestern region of Pakistan. It went in part:

"[T]he security forces during search operation at Banjut, Swat, recovered 50 mules loaded with arms and ammunition, medicines and ration and also apprehended a few terrorists. During search operation at Thana, an improvised explosive device (IED) went off causing injuries to a soldier. As a result of operation at Tahirabad, Mingora, the security forces recovered surgical equipment, nine hand grenades and office furniture from the house of a militant."

The unfamiliar place names, the attention to confiscated mules, and the fear of tribal militancy differed little from the reports in the Pioneer from nearly a century before. Echoing Viceroy Rufus Isaacs, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on July 14th, "Our national security as well as the future of Afghanistan depends on a stable, democratic, and economically viable Pakistan. We applaud the new Pakistani determination to deal with the militants who threaten their democracy and our shared security."

As in 1921, so in 2009, the skirmishes were ignored by the general public in the West despite the frenzied assertions of politicians that the fate of the world hung in the balance.

A Paranoid View of the Pashtuns, Then and Now

On July 21, 1921, a "correspondent" for the Allahabad Pioneer — as anonymous as he was vehement — explained how some firefights in Waziristan might indeed be consequential for Western civilization. He attacked "Irresponsible Criticism" of the military budget required to face down the Mahsud tribe. He asked, "What is India's strategical position in the world today?" It was a leading question. "Along hundreds of miles of her border," he then warned darkly in a mammoth run-on sentence, "are scores of thousands of hardy fighters trained to war and rapine from their very birth, never for an instant forgetful of the soft wealth of India's plains, all of whom would descend to harry them tomorrow if they thought the venture safe, some of whom are determinedly at war with us even now."

Note that he does not explain the challenge posed by the Pashtun tribes in terms of typical military considerations, which would require attention to the exact numbers, training, equipment, tactics and logistics of the fighters, and which would have revealed them as no significant threat to the Indian plains, however hard they were to control in their own territory. The "correspondent" instead ridicules urban "pen-pushers," who little appreciate the "heavy task" of "frontier ward and watch."

Not only were the tribes a danger in themselves, the hawkish correspondent intoned, but "beyond India's border lies a great country [Afghanistan] with whom we are not even yet technically at peace." Nor was that all. The recently-established Soviet Union, with which Afghanistan had concluded a treaty of friendship that February, loomed as the real threat behind the radical Pashtuns. "Beyond that again is a huge mad-dog nation that acknowledges no right save the sword, no creed save aggression, murder and loot, that will stay at nothing to gain its end, that covets avowedly a descent upon India above all other aims."

That then-Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, who took an extremely dim view of colonialism and seriously considered freeing the Central Asian possessions of the old tsarist empire, was then contemplating the rape of India is among the least believable calumnies in imperial propaganda. The "correspondent" would have none of it. Those, he concludes, who dare criticize the military budget should try sweet-talking the Mahsud, the Wazir and the Bolsheviks.

In our own day as well, pundits configure the uncontrolled Pashtuns as merely the tip of a geostrategic iceberg, with the sinister icy menace of al-Qaeda stretching beneath, and beyond that greater challenges to the U.S. such as Iran (incredibly, sometimes charged by the U.S. military with supporting the hyper-Sunni, Shiite-hating Taliban in Afghanistan). Occasionally in this decade, attempts have even been made to tie the Russian bear once again to the Pashtun tribes.

In the case of the British Empire, whatever the imperial fears, the actual cost in lives and expenditure of campaigning in the Hindu Kush mountain range was enough to ensure that such engagements would be of relatively limited duration. On October 26, 1921, the Pioneer reported that the British government of India had determined to implement a new system in Waziristan, dependent on tribal mercenaries.

"This system, which was so successfully inaugurated in the Khyber district last year," the article explained, "is really an adaptation of the methods in vogue 40 years ago." The tribal commander provided his own weapons and equipment, and for a fee, protected imperial lines of communication and provided security on the roads. "Thus he has an interest in maintaining the tranquility of his territory, and gives support to the more stable elements among the tribes when the hotheads are apt to run amok." The system would be adopted, the article says, to put an end to the ruinous costs of "punitive expeditions of merely ephemeral pacificatory value."

Absent-minded empire keeps reinventing the local tribal levy, loyal to foreign capitals and paid by them, as a way of keeping the hostiles in check. The U.S. Council on Foreign Relations reported late last year that "U.S. military commanders are studying the feasibility of recruiting Afghan tribesmen... to target Taliban and al-Qaeda elements. Taking a page from the so-called 'Sunni Awakening' in Iraq, which turned Sunni tribesmen against militants first in Anbar Province and then beyond, the strategic about-face in Afghanistan would seek to extend power from Kabul to the country's myriad tribal militias." Likewise, the Pakistani government has attempted to deploy tribal fighters against the Taliban in the Federally Administered areas such as Bajaur. It remains to be seen whether this strategy can succeed.

Both in the era between the two world wars and again in the early twenty-first century, the Pashtun peoples have been objects of anxiety in world capitals out of all proportion to the security challenge they actually pose. As it turned out, the real threat to the British Isles in the twentieth century emanated from one of what Churchill called their "civilized" European neighbors. Nothing the British tried in the North-West Frontier and its hinterland actually worked. By the 1940s the British hold on the tribal agencies and frontier regions was shakier than ever before, and the tribes more assertive. After the British were forced out of the subcontinent in 1947, London's anxieties about the Pashtuns and their world-changing potential abruptly evaporated.

Today, we are again hearing that the Waziris and the Mahsuds are dire threats to Western civilization. The tribal struggle for control of obscure villages in the foothills of the Himalayas is being depicted as a life-and-death matter for the North Atlantic world. Again, there is aerial surveillance, bombing, artillery fire, and — this time — displacement of civilians on a scale no British viceroy ever contemplated.

In 1921, vague threats to the British Empire from a small, weak principality of Afghanistan and a nascent, if still supine, Soviet Union underpinned a paranoid view of the Pashtuns. Today, the supposed entanglement with al-Qaeda of those Pashtuns termed "Taliban" by U.S. and NATO officials — or even with Iran or Russia — has focused Washington's and Brussels's military and intelligence efforts on the highland villagers once again.

Few of the Pashtuns in question, even the rebellious ones, are really Taliban in the sense of militant seminary students; few so-called Taliban are entwined with what little is left of al-Qaeda in the region; and Iran and Russia are not, of course, actually supporting the latter. There may be plausible reasons for which the U.S. and NATO wish to spend blood and treasure in an attempt to forcibly shape the politics of the 38 million Pashtuns on either side of the Durand Line in the twenty-first century. That they form a dire menace to the security of the North Atlantic world is not one of them.

Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History at the University of Michigan. He has written, edited, or translated 15 books, and authored 65 journal articles and chapters on Middle East affairs. He has a regular column at Salon.com and is the proprietor of the Informed Comment blog.


May 4, 2009
Fatman17! Thats an excellent article you posted!

All of our fellow countrymen should realize that the "Pakistan ending" Rhetoric that is sounded every now and then is just Major BS :sick: And it is used by many different psychos for their own dirty ends :tdown:

Some for warmongering some for making money, others for journalistic sensationalist BS and on and on. But I wanna ask, in all those >60 years, is there Pakistan on the world map or not?

Damn all of those who would wish otherwise! :sniper: Listen, all of you, Pakistan is here to stay, and it will outlast all of you. The Final Victory will be ours, Inshallah!




Mar 4, 2008
United Kingdom
if one analyst says that everything is fine then who will listen to him.. similar is the situation here. everyone wants to sell his story and wants to show that he knows wat others dont. in short they are all *** holes


Mar 31, 2007
Armageddon in Islamabad
by Bruce Riedel


IN DECEMBER 2007 Benazir Bhutto said, “I now think al-Qaeda can be marching on Islamabad in two to four years.” Before this interview could even be published she was murdered, most likely by the Pakistani Taliban, an al-Qaeda ally. Benazir’s words now look all too accurate. A jihadist victory in Pakistan, meaning the takeover of the nation by a militant Sunni movement led by the Taliban, would have devastating consequences. It would create the greatest threat the United States has yet to face in its war on terror. Pakistan as an Islamic-extremist safe haven would bolster al-Qaeda’s capabilities tenfold. The jihadist threat bred in Afghanistan would be a cakewalk in comparison. The old Afghan sanctuary was remote, landlocked and weak; a new one in Pakistan would be in the Islamic mainstream with a modern communications and transportation infrastructure linking it to the world. The threat would be almost unfathomable. The implications would be literally felt around the globe. American options for dealing with such a state would be limited and costly.

The growing strength of the Taliban in Pakistan has raised the serious possibility of a jihadist takeover of the country. Even with the army’s reluctant efforts in areas like the Swat Valley and sporadic popular revulsion with Taliban violence, at heart the country is unstable. A jihadist victory is neither imminent nor inevitable, but it is now a real possibility in the foreseeable future. This essay presumes (though does not predict) an Islamic-militant victory in Pakistan, examining how the country’s creation of and collusion with extremist groups has left Islamabad vulnerable to an Islamist coup.

THE ORIGINS of today’s crisis of course lie in the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The modern global jihad began in the Afghan refugee camps of Pakistan’s frontier lands along the one-thousand-five-hundred-mile border between the two countries. Volunteers from across the Islamic world came to fight with the Afghans. According to a senior Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) commander at the time, the ISI trained eighty thousand fighters from forty-three countries.

Yet, this is not just about the fighters recruited, trained and radicalized by that battle. It is also a story of the “Islamization” of Pakistan’s society—an Islamization that was supported by Pakistan’s own president, Zia ul-Haq, and was used not only to fight the Red Army but also to create a warring corps that could violently enforce Islamabad’s interests. And those interests lie more with defeating India than with controlling Kabul.

Zia predictably saw the Soviet invasion as part of a plot between Moscow and New Delhi to destroy Pakistan. He quietly began working with the CIA to help the mujahideen; while at home, Zia began the transition of the country from the soft-Muslim, even almost-secular, state of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of modern-day Pakistan, to a more fundamentalist Islam. The country became the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the army became an instrument of jihad and the politics of Pakistan became Islamized. Zia, the hit of Washington, was feted in the White House. His repressive policies inside Pakistan, including harsh Islamic punishments; his immense expansion of the role of the ISI into domestic spying; and his systematic Islamization of Pakistani life went ignored. So too did the growth of a Kalashnikov culture in the western badlands and the breakdown of traditional order as millions of Afghan refugees poured into the country.

Over the objections of the more cautious professionals in the CIA, the United States provided Zia and the Pakistani intelligence service vast amounts of money and weapons. The Saudis became equal partners in the project, bringing even-more money, their Wahhabi Islamic faith and young volunteers like Osama bin Laden to the war effort. Thus was the groundwork laid for a radicalized and well-armed Pakistani state.

Once the Soviets were defeated, Pakistan’s army and its ISI focused their sights back on their primary enemy—India. Employing the terror tactics and weaponry they acquired on the battlefields of Afghanistan, they went on to support an insurgency in Kashmir in the early 1990s, returning to help the Taliban take over most of Afghanistan a few years later. Finally, in the late 1990s they created terror groups based in the eastern Pakistani province of Punjab, like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET) and Jaish-e-Muhammad (JEM), to take the war against their mortal enemy deep into India itself. Supporting asymmetric warfare is a tool to fight New Delhi. With an officer corps increasingly sympathetic to jihad, alliances with extremists were and are a natural fit.

And so Zia had helped create a fighting force that would become increasingly hard to control, let alone roll back. His successors found this out quickly enough. After Zia’s death, Pakistani politics came to revolve around a struggle between Ms. Bhutto and her archrival Nawaz Sharif. Neither was competent as a manager of the nation. Both were mired in corruption. Neither controlled the army or the ISI, which went on to build a state within the state and engage in creating a host of private terrorist armies to fight India and gain control of Afghanistan.

Because of this the Pakistani jihadists were inside Afghanistan and part and parcel of the Taliban problem at the time of 9/11. In 1999, General Pervez Musharraf, an enthusiastic supporter of the struggle against India, had come to power in a military coup that overthrew Sharif. As a member of the army, he could in theory better control the rogue elements of the state, but in large part his interests were allied with the extremists in their struggle to dominate Afghanistan and fight India. After 9/11, Musharraf reluctantly agreed under tremendous U.S. pressure to a crackdown on some terrorists, but not surprisingly it was a selective and halfhearted effort. After a couple of years, the Afghan Taliban was allowed to regroup in Quetta, the largest city in Baluchistan, and in Peshawar, in the North-West Frontier Province, helping give birth to the Pakistani Taliban. LET and JEM though formally outlawed were kept active just beneath the surface. Al-Qaeda found a new home in the tribal regions of Pakistan. Once again, Pakistan became the breeder of and a home to Islamist terrorists. This has been one of Pakistan’s greatest military assets and one of its greatest domestic weaknesses. The push and pull between the government, which has abetted these efforts, and the army and ISI, which created and in some parts run these groups, is fraught with tension.

PAKISTAN IS in the midst of a complex and difficult transition from the military dictatorship of Musharraf to an elected civilian government. The army is reluctant to surrender real power; it is the largest landholder in the country and has created a massive military-industrial complex that benefits the officer corps. And it controls Pakistan’s powerful intelligence service. For most of 2004 to 2007—when the jihadists regrouped—the director of ISI was General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, now the army’s commander. This shows not only the critical role of the ISI but also the pervasiveness and unity of the military-industrial complex. In contrast, the civilians are divided by party and region; they spend more time infighting than governing.

The economy is dominated by almost-feudal landlords. The education system has been in decline for decades, starved of funds by the military’s requirements. The judiciary has been systematically attacked by the army and the political parties and is only now trying to achieve independence and credibility.

Thus Pakistan is both a patron and victim of terror. The Frankenstein created by the army and the ISI is now increasingly out of control and threatening the freedoms of all Pakistanis. Incidents of terrorist violence in Pakistan doubled from almost nine hundred in 2007 to over one thousand eight hundred in 2008 according to the National Counterterrorism Center. Many remain in denial, however, especially in the army. Others blame it all on the Americans and the CIA. As the mayor of Karachi, the largest megacity in the Islamic world, recently told me, Pakistan today is a country in the intensive-care ward of the global state system. Many expect it will fail to recover. All too easily it could fail completely.

The country is ripe for change, but it could be radical change for the worst. The battle for the soul of Pakistan has never been so acute.

Extremist forces are beginning to align. The spread of their influence could come easily. To secure power, the Taliban—currently concentrated in the tribal areas west of the Indus and all along the border with Afghanistan—would need to move east. This would take them from the Pashtun-dominated regions into the Punjabi heartland, where they need to gain significantly more support. There is good evidence this is already happening. The Pakistani Taliban is now coalescing with the Punjab-based Lashkar-e-Taiba. Though differences between the organizations remain (they have no common leader or agreed-upon agenda other than jihad against India and the West), they could well overcome their differences and make overthrowing the government their common priority.

Terrorist leaders would likely be able to tap into the deep anger among landless peasants as well. In the India-bordering provinces of Punjab and Sindh, where they already have a great deal of support, the extremists could mobilize a mass movement similar in some respects to that which toppled the shah of Iran in 1979. Press reports suggest antilandlord agitation has been a part of the extremists’ success in the last year in Swat and elsewhere. And in this way the current civilian government would be swept from power and the army would be pressed to make an accommodation with the new Islamist leadership. Since many in the army back the jihadists already, a deal with an Islamist movement would be attractive, especially if the Islamists made promises of protecting the army’s interests (which might or might not be kept later). The new government would be composed of representatives of the Pakistani Taliban, LET and possibly the Islamist political parties that have contested electoral power in the past. It might even draw some support from disaffected parts of the two mainstream political parties, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), hoping to “moderate” the movement and to “tame” the Taliban.

A JIHADIST state would presumably come to power through some combination of violence and intimidation, and the takeover would not be without its problems. But none would likely threaten the success of the transition. All, however, would lead to an increasingly unstable and violence-wracked state.

Indeed, the Islamists would face significant internal opposition. The fifth of Pakistanis who are Shia would be extremely uneasy with a Sunni-militant regime and communal violence would probably intensify, with implications for Islamabad’s ties with Tehran. Pakistan has long been shaken by bombings and murders orchestrated by extremist Sunni and Shia elements, sometimes stoked by the ISI. This could escalate into more extensive anti-Shia violence.

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in the large cities of Sindh—Pakistan’s southeasternmost province—would probably resist and have to be defeated by force. The MQM is the representative party of Muslims who fled India in 1947 and has become a secular and liberal force in recent years, but its appeal is limited to a minority. Though especially strong in Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city, the MQM is not a national party and its leadership is in exile in London, weakening its ability to stand up to extremists. It would fight for its life in Sindh but lacks the ability to lead a national resistance, and so it would be more of an annoying disruption than a real challenge to the new government.

Large numbers of educated and Westernized Pakistanis would try to flee a new Islamic Emirate of Pakistan. They would find it difficult to find a port willing to take them, however, as security services around the world would insist on tight visa controls; potential states of refuge like the UK or Norway, both of which have large Pakistani émigré populations already, would face strong internal opposition to taking in more Muslims. The Gulf city-states like Abu Dhabi and Doha would probably take the most exiles, especially those with money.

Imposition of harsh Islamic penalties for social reasons, land reforms and the flight of many with capital would damage an already-weak economy and discourage foreign investment and loans. The emirate would probably blame its economic difficulties on the outside world and use foreign pressure as an excuse for even-more draconian crackdowns inside.

The army would be the most dangerous adversary. Some in the officer corps that would rather be in power themselves would certainly resist and might indeed try to stage a coup. The emirate would move to purge the armed forces of these potential coup plotters. It might also set up a new military force to act as a counterweight to the regular army, akin to the role of the SS in Nazi Germany or the Revolutionary Guard in Iran. The ISI in particular would be cleansed to eliminate any potential threats to the regime from secularists or those who seek more personal power.

The new regime would be quick to take control of the nuclear arsenal as it purged the army of any dissident voices. And it would welcome Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri from their hiding places of the last decade (although they would presumably keep a low profile to avoid being attacked by outside security services). Certainly al-Qaeda, LET and a host of other terrorist groups would have much more room to operate, free of any significant constraints on their activities from the Pakistani authorities. Even worse, the new government might abet their terrorist activities, providing the use of embassies and missions abroad for staging operations.

In the end, we would be left with an extremist-controlled Pakistan, infested with violence, an almost completely dysfunctional economy, harsh laws and even-harsher methods for imposing them, and above all a nuclear-armed nation controlled by terrorist sympathizers.

THE EFFECTS of an extremist takeover would not end at Pakistan’s borders. A worsening conflict between Sunni and Shia could easily seep into the rest of the Muslim world.

Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan would deepen. The south and east of the country would be a virtual part of the Pakistani state. The commander of the faithful, Mullah Muhammad Omar, and his Quetta shura (ruling council) would emerge as the odds-on favorite to take over the area. The non-Pashtun majority in Afghanistan would certainly resist, but in the Pashtun belt across the south and east, the Afghan Taliban would be even stronger than it is now. Afghanistan would go back to looking much like it did pre–the American intervention in 2001, with a dominant Taliban backed by Pakistan fighting the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Shia backed by Iran, Russia and the central-Asian republics.

Afghanistan would become a battleground for influence between Pakistan and Iran, as Sunni-dominated Pakistan and Shia-dominated Iran would find a war for ideological dominance almost irresistible. Both states would also be tempted to meddle with each other’s minorities—the Shia in Pakistan and Sunni in Iran, as well as both countries’ Baluchi minority. Baluchistan, Pakistan’s southwestern province that neighbors both Afghanistan and Iran, is already unstable on both sides of the border. It would become another area of conflict. The low-intensity insurgencies already burning in the border areas would become more severe with outsiders fueling the fires. As the Islamic Emirate of Pakistan suppressed its Shia minority, Tehran would be forced to sit and watch because of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. And so Iran would certainly accelerate its nuclear-weapons-development program but would be years, if not decades, behind its neighbor.

With many of the LET in power, a major mass-casualty attack on India like the November 2008 Mumbai bombings would be likely. And this time it could spark war. India has shown remarkable restraint over the last decade as the Pakistani army, militants in Pakistan or both have carried out provocations like the Kargil War in 1999, the attack on the Indian parliament in 2001 and the Mumbai raid last year. Of course, a big part of India’s restraint is the lack of any good military option for retaliation that would avoid the risk of nuclear Armageddon. But if pressed hard enough, New Delhi may need to take some action. Blockading Karachi and demanding the closure of militant training camps might seem to be a way to increase pressure without firing the first shot but it carries a high risk of spiraling escalation. And of course any chance for a peace agreement in Kashmir would be dead. Violence in the region would rise. The new militant regime in Pakistan would increase support for the insurgency.

And Israel would come into the emirate’s crosshairs as a major target. Pakistan has always supported the Palestinian cause. In the past, most of the championing has been rhetorical, but an Islamic state would become a more practical supporter of Sunni groups like Hamas, giving money and arms. Pakistani embassies could become safe havens for terrorists pinpointing Zionist and Crusader targets. Of course, Pakistan could also provide the bomb. Farther away from Israel than Iran, Pakistan would be a harder foe for the Israelis to counter with force. And Israel has done little or no strategic thinking about the Pakistani threat.

A militant Islamic state in Pakistan, the second-largest Muslim country and the only one with a nuclear arsenal, would have a massive ripple effect across the Islamic world. All of the existing Muslim regimes would be alarmed by the prospect of their own jihadists finding a new refuge and training facilities; the extremists would then have a new base from which to fight their home governments. The psychological impact on Muslim nations would be far more profound than previous Islamic takeovers in relatively remote or marginal states like Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia or Gaza.

The global Islamic jihad, spearheaded by al-Qaeda, would proclaim the liberation of the ummah, or community, was at hand. In Pakistani-diaspora communities in the United Kingdom and the Gulf states the risk of terrorism would be even greater than it is today. The United States would have to take steps to curb travel by its citizens of Pakistani origin to their homeland. The damage that could be wrought is many magnitudes greater than the capabilities lent to al-Qaeda through having a safe haven in Afghanistan. Our options in facing down an extremist-controlled Pakistan would be far more limited than those we had in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks.

A JIHADIST Pakistan would be the most serious threat to the United States since the end of the cold war. Aligned with al-Qaeda and armed with nuclear weapons, the Islamic Emirate of Pakistan would be a nightmare. U.S. options for dealing with it would all be bad.

Engagement would be nearly impossible as the new leadership in Islamabad would have no faith and little interest in any dialogue with the Crusaders and Zionists. If we retained an embassy in Pakistan, it would be at constant risk of attack—if not from the regime itself then from its allies like al-Qaeda. Islamabad would almost certainly demand an immediate and complete withdrawal of all foreign forces from neighboring Afghanistan and consider any counterterrorist operations on its territory cause for retaliation against American interests elsewhere. Since more than three-quarters of all of NATO’s supplies in Afghanistan come via Karachi, the new emirate would have us in a tight bind. In an international forum, Pakistan would outdo Iran as the leader of the anti-Israel cause and constantly demand the handover of all of Kashmir from India.

U.S. options to change the regime by a coup or by assisting dissidents like the MQM would be minimal. The United States is so unpopular in Pakistan today that American endorsement of a politician is the kiss of death. Ms. Bhutto learned this lesson literally. The Pakistani Shia community would look to Iran, not America, for help.

Military options would be unappealing at best and counterproductive at worst. The United States would discover the same difficult choices Indian leaders have looked at for a decade. Striking terrorist training camps achieves virtually nothing since they can easily and cheaply be rebuilt. The risk of collateral damage—real or invented—probably creates more terrorists than the raids could kill. Even a successful operation creates new martyrs for the terrorists’ propaganda machines.

A naval blockade to coerce behavior change would mean imposing humanitarian suffering on the population. It would also prompt terrorist reprisals in and outside of South Asia. Combined with air strikes, a blockade might impose real costs on the jihadist regime but is unlikely to topple it and would be hard to sustain in the absence of a major provocation.

Invasion á la Iraq in 2003 would require a land base nearby. Landlocked Afghanistan would be a risky place from which to work. Iran is a nonstarter. India might be prepared in some extreme scenario to attack with American forces, but that would rally every Pakistani to the extremists’ cause.

The Pakistanis would, of course, use their nuclear weapons to defend themselves. While they do not have delivery systems capable of reaching America, they could certainly destroy cities and bases in Afghanistan, India, the Gulf states and, if smuggled out ahead of time by terrorists, perhaps the United States. A victory in such a conflict would be Pyrrhic indeed.

Of course, the hardest problem would be the day after. What would we do with a country twice the size of California with enormous poverty, almost 50 percent illiteracy and intense popular hatred for all that we stand for after we have fought a nuclear war to occupy it?

The worst thing about the military option is that we might have little choice but to use it if al-Qaeda launched another 9/11-magnitude attack on the United States from a jihadist Pakistan. It is highly unlikely a jihadist Islamabad would turn over bin Laden for justice after a new “Manhattan raid,” and sanctions would be a very unsatisfying response to thousands of deaths—or more if al-Qaeda had acquired one of Pakistan’s bombs.

A jihadist, nuclear-armed Pakistan is a scenario we need to avoid at all costs. That means working with the Pakistan we have today to try to improve its spotty record on terrorism and proliferation. There is good reason for pessimism. Working with the existing order in Pakistan may not succeed. But there is every reason to try, given the horrors of the alternative.

FOR THE last sixty years American policy toward Pakistan has oscillated wildly between periods when Washington was entranced by Islamabad and embraced its policies without question (Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan and Bush 43), or sanctioned Pakistan and blamed it for either provoking wars or developing nuclear weapons (Johnson, Carter, Bush 41 and Clinton). In the love-affair years, Washington would build secret relationships (the U-2 base in Peshawar and the mujahideen war in the 1980s) and throw literally billions of dollars at Pakistan with little or no accountability. In the scorned years, Pakistan would be démarched to death and Washington would cut off all military and economic aid. Both approaches failed dismally.

Moreover, America endorsed every Pakistani military dictator, no matter that they started wars with India and moved the country ever deeper into the jihadist embrace. John F. Kennedy entertained the first dictator, Ayub Khan, at Mount Vernon, the only time George Washington’s home has ever witnessed a state dinner. Richard Nixon turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s murder of hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis to keep his friends in the army in power—and his back channel to China open. Yet despite Nixon’s support of Islamabad, India still scored an overwhelming victory against Pakistan in the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War. Ronald Reagan entertained Mohammad Zia ul-Haq as he encouraged the Arab jihadists that would become al-Qaeda. George W. Bush let Pervez Musharraf give the Afghan Taliban a sanctuary to kill American and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan.

In contrast, LBJ cut off military aid when Pakistan started the 1965 war with India, and George H. W. Bush sanctioned Islamabad for building a bomb that Reagan had tacitly approved. Bill Clinton sanctioned the country again for testing the bomb after India goaded it into doing so (he had little choice, as the U.S. Congress mandated automatic sanctions for testing).

What the U.S.-Pakistan relationship needs is constancy and consistency. We need to recognize that change in Pakistan will come when we engage reliably with the Pakistani people, support the democratic process and address Pakistan’s legitimate security concerns. Candor needs to be the hallmark of an enduring commitment to civilian rule in Pakistan.

U.S.-aid levels should not be the product of temper tantrums on Capitol Hill. We should help Pakistan deal with its illiteracy rate, because literate women will fight the Taliban. We should provide the Pakistani army with the helicopter fleet it needs to combat insurgents in the western badlands. We should stop trying to legislate Pakistani behavior by attaching conditions to aid legislation, a tactic that has consistently failed with Pakistan in the past. Our goal should be to convince Pakistanis that the existential threat to their liberty comes not from the CIA or India, but from al-Qaeda.

We also need to engage India constructively on how to reduce and then end the tensions, including in Kashmir, that have resulted from partition. Ironically, the Pakistanis and Indians have made great progress on this issue behind the scenes in the last decade. Musharraf deserves credit for much of this. After trying to force India to give up Kashmir by limited war, nuclear intimidation and terror, he finally settled on a back-channel negotiation process. No one on either side denies how close to a deal they have come. Quiet and subtle American diplomacy should now try to advance this further.

None of this will be easy. Pakistan is a complex and combustible society undergoing a severe crisis. America helped create that crisis over a long period of time. If we don’t help Pakistan now, we may have to deal with a jihadist Pakistan later. That should focus our attention.

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer, is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He has advised four sitting presidents on Pakistan. He chaired an interagency review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Obama administration that was completed in March 2009.


Mar 31, 2007
Invasion á la Iraq in 2003 would require a land base nearby. Landlocked Afghanistan would be a risky place from which to work. Iran is a nonstarter. India might be prepared in some extreme scenario to attack with American forces, but that would rally every Pakistani to the extremists’ cause.
I have been saying this in past to those who think US can attack Iran from west or persian gulf.
I say it will never happen as there is no feasibility, if US or Israel adopt this way it would be a lost war.
In future regional war involving Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, India will be ally to US and NATO.
india-US alliance and US bases in Afghanistan pose bigger threat to middle eastern states more than any thing.
Whole middle east will be black mailed one by one after Pakistan is over powered or once its army is engaged in gorilla war with sponsored terrorists army, which is being constantly made in Afghanistan by the occupying armies.
This is why they say Pakistan holds the key to survival of middleast and Arab world.
Just imagine a world without Pakistan, where US and NATO having military bases in Afghanistan and allied with indian army fully armed with latest biological wepons.
mind it sucide bombers are biological wepons and latest chemicals and techniques are used in their brain washing and only advance nations have military research programmes involving alteration in human behavior and genetics.
I'm 100% sure if Pakistan govt. choose to have medical analysis of any captured sucide child they will find some medicen in their blood.

Users Who Are Viewing This Thread (Total: 1, Members: 0, Guests: 1)

Top Bottom