Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

The End of Pakistan

By David G. Young

Washington DC, February 24, 2009 --  

Violent insurgencies and an economic crisis will soon see the end of the Pakistani state. American policymakers must plan for this collapse.

While Washington's foreign policy wonks ruminate over the Obama administration's new strategy in Afghanistan, a far bigger problem is looming in the region: the imminent collapse of Pakistan. News last week of the Pakistan's surrender to the Taliban in the Swat valley -- only 100 miles from its capital -- is further evidence that the central government is losing its tenuous control over the country.1

The peace deal ends battles between militants and the Pakistani armed forces, and allows the extremists to impose Islamic law on the region. As terrible as this sounds to Pakistan's American allies, the reality is that the central government has limited power to continue fighting even if it wanted to. And there are powerful forces within the country that want exactly the opposite.

Let there be no mistake, the Taliban is not and never has been an Afghan movement. While dominated by the Pashtun ethnic group that straddles the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, it was founded on the Pakistani side. Pakistan's spy agency, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, organized the group after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan to rule the neighboring country by proxy. This strong relationship has continued. Last August, the New York Times reported that American intelligence had intercepted communications between the ISI and the Taliban militants who bombed the Indian Embassy in Kabul.2

Horribly embarrassed by this revelation, Pakistan's civilian President, Asif Ali Zardari, moved to reign in the ISI, announcing the closure of its political wing that had been involved in organizing political parties inside Pakistan for years.3 But given the relative weakness of the civilian president compared with the ISI and the Pakistani armed forces, it is unlikely that this and other measures will have any more than cosmetic value.

Pakistan has long been torn between the Western-oriented central government, its restive regions (both in the Pashtun-dominated tribal areas and in nearby Baluchistan with a separate low-intensity insurgency4), and the radical nationalist and Islamist sympathizers in the ISI and the military. Tensions between these groups have grown in recent years, with billions of dollars worth of smuggled Afghan heroin -- potentially 1,100 metric tons in 20085 -- making the Pakistani Taliban and their ISI allies ever more powerful.

But it was crushing debt exacerbated by last year's high oil prices and the international financial crisis that has brought Pakistan's central government to the brink. Unable to get a loan from any foreign governments, Pakistan had to resort to a $7.6 billion emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund just to keep from defaulting on its foreign debt, and is currently seeking $4.5 billion more.6 Inflation has been hovering at over 20 percent, and the government has been forced to slash social spending and increase interest rates in order to meet IMF conditions for the loans.7

These moves are expected to push more Pakistanis into poverty, creating widespread social unrest that may cause the whole system to come unglued. All that is needed for the collapse to happen is a tiny spark. The likelihood that this will happen is so high that the real question is not whether but when. The end for Pakistan's central government could come as soon as next month, or it might be able to linger for a few more years.

Whenever the collapse comes, the short-term consequences will be severe. Splinter groups from the ISI and military will emerge free from government control. Some will wear their Islamist beliefs on their sleeves, forming open alliances with the Taliban and other Islamic groups in the area. Other more moderate factions will seek U.S. backing in the resulting civil war.

The American government will have no choice but to immediately intervene to secure Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, and keep it from falling into the hands of Islamists. Pakistan's separatist regions of Baluchistan and Pashtunistan will go their own way, with the latter likely being entirely occupied by NATO forces as part of their war against the Taliban.

But the most horrific consequences of the dissolution of Pakistan will be in the battle for control over the heartland -- the densely populated provinces of Punjab and Sindh. Years of bloody fighting between countless factions and millions of deaths will make the post-Soviet period in Afghanistan look peaceful by comparison.

As terrible as this sounds, the long-term picture may be more positive. If secular forces prove ultimately victorious, the people of Punjab and Sindh provinces will be finally freed from the Pakistani state's Islamic identify, and the extremist ideology of many of its officials. Punjab may even be re-united between its Indian and Pakistani parts for the first time since the disastrous partition of the subcontinent in the waning days of the British Empire.

It is such positive ends that American policymakers must seek. Instead of ignoring the impending disaster, and focussing on the comparatively insignificant conflict in Afghanistan, America must steer Pakistan's collapse in a direction that is in the best interests of Americans and South Asians alike.


1. Los Angeles Times, Confusion Hangs Over Pakistan's Pact With Taliban, February 24, 2009

2. New York Times, Pakistanis Aided Attack in Kabul, U.S. Officials Say, August 1, 2008

3. United Press International, Pakistan Closes ISI's Political Wing, November 25, 2008

4. The Economist, Let Them Eat Mud, April 17, 2008

5. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghanistan Opium Survey, August 2008

6. Bloomberg News, Pakistan to Seek Additional $4.5 Billion IMF Loan, February 16, 2009

7. South Asia Times, Pakistan Fears Poverty Surge, February 20, 2009