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Is Pakistan unravelling?

July 26, 2004

In the wake of the enquiry commission report on the events of 9/11, there is a spate of articles in the American media detailing the major role played by Pakistan in that catalytic event. At the popular level in America, as shown in various Hollywood movies, Pakistanis are often depicted as terrorists along with the Arabs.

On a recent visit to the US one was struck by the general air of pessimism prevailing amongst American think tanks about the future of Pakistan. Some of these experts are well known for their soft corner for that country, therefore it was all the more surprising. Earlier that honour was reserved for India; predictions of its break-up after Nehru or after the BJP came to power were routine. But similar sentiments being expressed about Pakistan was indeed a new experience.

The reasons for the Pakistani crisis according to them were:

  • The rift within the Pakistan army between the rank and file and officers; between senior officers and junior officers (the post Zia period and influenced by the Islamist world view versus the old guard that is more pro-American and moderate); and within the officer class as a whole between the Islamists and the moderates.
  • Unrest in Pakistani civil society due to food shortages and the clear perception that the army was hoodwinking the people under the guide of the threat from India.
  • Disenchantment with the mullahs who are now increasingly seen as the biggest threat to Islam.
  • Regional differences between the provinces where Sindh and Baluchistan feel discriminated against in matters of allocation of financial resources.
  • Effects of the anti-tribal operations in the Waziristan area.
  • Effects of the Indian general election where the Pakistani people, especially the poor, saw how democracy works. In Pakistan they are powerless under army rule. This feeling of disaffection has also spread to the middle class.
  • The two pillars on which the ruling mullah-military alliance stood -- the threat from India and the danger to Islam -- both stand discredited and weakened, if not altogether demolished. The hype and mass coverage to the recently concluded cricket series did much to blunt the anti-India edge. Paradoxically the wide media coverage given to the frequent missile tests conducted by Pakistan have further convinced the vast majority of Pakistanis that India no longer poses a threat to them.

Singly, none of these factors could pose a threat of the dissolution of Pakistan. But the fact that these multiple crisis are occurring simultaneously is the real danger.

The US places a lot of faith in Musharraf. They feel he is their best bet to keep Pakistan together and away from turning a terrorist. But the Americans are clearly worried about the very survival of Musharraf in case of a major catch like Mullah Omar or Osama bin Laden as a result of the ongoing military operations in the Pakistan/Afghanistan border areas.

The Americans are concerned that the collapse of Pakistan may remove the vital pillar of their Afghan and anti-terror policy and are searching for answers. But it also appears that they may well be preparing for the inevitable if that becomes unavoidable.

Given the proximity of the Americans to the Pakistani establishment, their views have to be taken seriously.


Two possible scenarios are:

Revolt in the periphery

The provinces of Sindh, Baluchistan, the Northern Areas and Pakistan occupied Kashmir may well revolt against Punjabi domination. The North West Frontier Province is already part of Afghanistan all except in name, so it is likely to continue in the same way.

It is accepted that the Pakistani army is capable and ruthless enough to crush this revolt with great brutality. But if all the periphery revolts at the same time then its resources are not adequate. At most the Pakistan army can deal with one revolt at a time, not more than that.

In this case while there would be no direct military threat to India, we may well be saddled with a huge refugee influx, especially from Sindh and PoK.

In addition, jihadi elements may well try to create similar disturbances in India by engineering Godhra-type incidents. The Amarnath Yatra may well be the first target.

As the central authority would be weak in this situation, jihadis may well be totally out of control with grave threat of increased terrorism in India that would be random and directed at creating communal animosities in India. This would be helped by the local sympathisers of jihadis who have created virtually autonomous enclaves in major urban centres of India.

Taliban-like hardliners take over the Pakistan army and the State

The second possible scenario is that a hardline faction of the army consisting of younger elements led by someone like Lieutenant General Mohammad Aziz with help of the Jamaat-e-Islami take over the army. It may not mean any rift within the army as the Pakistan army has a tradition of conducting bloodless coups.

What may well happen is the systematic purge of army moderates and elimination of opposing civilians. The revolt could be bloody if the moderate army leadership finds support amongst the rank and file and those units stand by and fight.

It is now clear that the two assassination attempts against Musharraf were an inside job signifying that there is a sizeable pro-fundamentalist faction within the army. But if the extremists are stronger then faced with the prospect of certain defeat, it is unlikely that any soldier would hitch his future with the moderates.

There may well be resistance in civil society. In case this scenario is to materialise since the jihadi forces would be fully engaged in consolidating their hold over Pakistan, there would be very little attempt to foment trouble in India. The flow of refugees is, however, likely to be even greater.

Since a Taliban-like takeover of Pakistan is certain to invite economic sanctions, Pakistan would face economic collapse as all aid would dry up. A Taliban-like regime in Pakistan would have long term repercussions on India in that the hardline Islamists within India would get greater support. A sort of mirror image of what happened to Pakistan when the Taliban took over Afghanistan.

The Taliban-like revolt would have grave repercussions on the West's war on terrorism in Afghanistan and a likely military intervention by the West may take place.

India cannot keep aloof from these events. In this scenario the use of Pakistani nuclear weapons against India -- either authorised or by rogue elements -- is very likely.

How far the Americans have seized control of Pakistani nukes is not known at this point in time. A web site sometime ago claimed that the jihadis have control over two/three nuclear-tipped missiles.

The basic cause for unravelling of Pakistan was the very un-naturalness of the concept of Pakistan. If religion alone could be basis of nationalism then what about the Hindus and Christians in Pakistan? Are they also a separate nation?


A long-term context and view of Islam shows that Islamic separatism is still a potent force in the subcontinent. The spread of political Islam was halted on the banks of Narmada in the 18th century. But in the North of the subcontinent there has been no rollback of Islamic influence like in Europe. The separation of Bangladesh could well be explained as having taken place due to geographical factors. The current Islamisation of Bangladesh shows that clearly. Pakistan could well be seen as an extension of the Middle East into the Indian subcontinent. Wherever in a local majority -- as in Kashmir -- the Muslims yearn for a separate state or merger with an existing Islamic entity.

The Pakistani achievement of survival between 1947 and 1954 (before the beginning of Western aid) should not be underestimated. A huge (in proportion of its overall population) inflow of refugees, total absence of any infrastructure of government and lack of natural resources and industry did not deter Pakistan from not only surviving but thriving and even invading parts of India like Kashmir.

The 'hate India' cement is too strong and the rulers will use it when faced with difficulty and label all revolts on the periphery as 'anti-Islam' and crush them ruthlessly.

The very basis of Pakistan is anti-democracy. It was created since the Muslims did not accept living under a Hindu majority. The creation of Pakistan on that basis ensured that democracy remained a factor to be suppressed with the use of Sharia and feudalism. Islam has been used by the Pakistani elite for governance and keeping India destabilised. The Pakistan army would not break up or revolt, it would merely change its role from 'modernising' to enforcing the Sharia.

A revolt by the poor and dispossessed in Pakistan is unlikely as the people of the subcontinent have a virtually unlimited capacity to suffer. The history of Islam in the subcontinent shows that an Aurangzeb invariably succeeds against a liberal Dara Shikoh. This has been proved time and again.

What is likely to happen in Pakistan is a series of coups as a letting off steam mechanism for its society. Witness the exactly identical rhetoric against corruption that has been used by all military coup leaders since Ayub Khan and swallowed by the Pakistan public.

One of the coups could well usher in an Islamist and Taliban-like corps commander and lead to the Talibanisation of Pakistan. As long as the minimum level of order prevails and the common man can survive, there is no chance of unravelling of Pakistan.

As against the above argument, some reports suggest the anarchy that prevails in Karachi and even Lahore is such that ordinary thievery is passé. In its place are crimes like car snatching. There have been reports of Pakistan army officers defying the orders to shoot at civilians in tribal areas.

Musharraf is a prisoner in his palace and does not dare move out. The minimum level of order has already collapsed in Pakistan and the use of the army to restore order would bring it in direct confrontation with the people. Would it then act against the people or the rulers?


First and foremost, the Indian government, media and the people must give up the woolly notion of attributing all this to the machinations of the ISI. It is time we realised the truth -- that the ISI is manned by Pakistan army personnel on deputation and operates under the firm control of the Pakistan army chief. For all intents and purposes, it is part and parcel of the Pakistan army.

Prime Minister Jamali has recently been replaced. The scenario of coups and counter coups seem to be in place.

India has to watch out for:

  • The advent of an Islamist leader at the helm of affairs.
  • If there is a peaceful coup then the terrorists would be unleashed against India as the best bet for a new ruler to establish himself.
  • If there is a Taliban-like takeover then its local sympathisers would create trouble and there is a greater danger of pre-emptive use of nukes by Pakistan as the Taliban mindset is inherently illogical and unstable.

Musharraf's constant blowing hot and cold is a symptom of the instability there. At the minimum, India must expect and deal with the continuing campaign of terror against us.

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