Ethics & Public Policy Center

Al-Qaedastan

Published in National Review Online on November 5, 2007



What is to become of Pakistan? In the wake of President Musharraf's declaration of a state of emergency, any number of grim scenarios are imaginable. Before spinning some of them out, consider this true and timely confession from Stephen P. Cohen, one of America's top Pakistan experts: “I don’'t know what's going to happen….I don't think any Pakistan expert knows what will happen even tomorrow.”

Civil War
Cohen nails it. Yet granting the inevitable uncertainties, let me nonetheless venture a guess. I think we face the real possibility of civil war, in the form of a significantly expanded conflict between Musharraf's army and Pakistan's Islamist radicals (meaning al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and a variety of local Islamist groups and parties). An extended nation-wide war between the army and the Islamists could theoretically play out even as pro-democracy forces take to the streets to bring Musharraf down. Yet I think a serious battle between the army and the jihadists would likely force Benazir Bhutto and her allies into quiescence.

Rather than ending conclusively, a civil war between the army and the Islamists would most likely drag out indefinitely, or end in a draw around roughly the same battle lines we see today (i.e. with the northwest in the hands of the jihadists). More extreme outcomes are possible — anything from a military victory over the Islamists (perhaps aided by U.S. forces) to an Islamist takeover of a nuclear-armed Pakistan.

Democratic Revolt
Media analysis so far has tended to underplay, or even openly challenge, the jihadist angle. Consider this piece in The Christian Science Monitor, which claims that, despite Musharraf's assertions to the contrary, the emergency has little to do with terrorism. Says the Monitor, “The extremists in Pakistan's border region are not a threat to the solvency of the state, nor is emergency rule likely to change the Army's fortunes in fighting them.” According to the authorities quoted by the Monitor, rather than adding to the strength of Musharraf's forces on the ground, all the emergency does is enable him to circumvent Pakistan's Supreme Court (which was about to declare his reelection invalid). The Monitor calls the emergency an “eerie echo of decades past,” i.e. of the many previous coups that short-circuited Pakistani democracy. And the key question, according to the Monitor, is whether Benazir Bhutto and liberal lawyers can marshal significant public opposition to Musharraf, in which case Pakistan's army will be compelled, as often before, to remove a discredited dictator and restore at least a modicum of democracy.

Well, things certainly could play out along these lines, but the Monitor here is buying the analysis of Musharraf's opponents, and something about that analysis doesn't quite ring true. According to the critics, puffing up the terrorist threat is just Musharraf's way of duping gullible Americans into supporting him. The truth, these critics say, is that, to the extent that terrorism is a problem, this is a function of the lack of democracy. Give the people a peaceful outlet to vent their grievances, and they will turn away from violence. Musharraf's opponents insist that the way to stanch the spread of Islamism is to take power away from the army and hand it to a secular middle class capable of transmitting modern and liberal mores to the country as a whole.

Was Musharraf Right?
Unfortunately, there are reasons to doubt all this. Granted, Musharraf's emergency does replay a long-standing Pakistani pattern of anti-democratic military coups. And massive public opposition could, as before, prompt the military to (partially) restore democracy. Yet this well-practiced Pakistani pattern is now playing out in a decidedly novel environment. Pakistan's government has never faced armed, independent, organized, and territorially based Islamist opposition on today's scale. That is likely to give Pakistan's recurring political history a radical new twist. In calmer circumstances, a stable democracy guided by a secular middle-class might have headed off the specter of Islamist radicalism. Today, however, given the size and strength of the Islamist threat, and given the unique social role of Pakistan's army, a military government may be the only real bulwark against the potential disaster of a nuclear-armed al-Qaedastan.

It would have been better if the power-sharing deal between Musharraf and Bhutto had held. If such a deal can still be rescued and genuinely made to work, that would certainly be welcome. Yet contrary to the claim that terrorism was just an excuse, I fear that Musharraf's invocation of the state's critical vulnerability was all too valid.

The Threat
Consider the nature and scale of the Islamist threat. Pakistan's central government has never exercised direct control over its unruly northwestern tribal regions. As in colonial times, that part of the country has been ruled by tribal law. Even so, following British colonial practice, the tribal regions have been supervised by representatives of the central government (backed by elite military forces) who've worked with pliable tribal elders to keep rebellion in check. Today even that system of indirect rule is defunct. Not only have the central government's agents been expelled from the tribal regions, most traditional tribal elders have been eliminated by a systematic Taliban campaign of assassination. And now jihadist control has pushed beyond the core tribal regions into historically more pliant agricultural districts, and to some extent even into urban areas. There is no precedent for a successful Islamist rebellion on this scale.

Traditionally, religious, tribal, or ethnic rebellions in Pakistan's northwest have been put down by military incursions. Today, however, Pakistan's vaunted military is in crisis. Having taken heavy casualties over years of humiliatingly unsuccessful fighting against their own countrymen, Pakistan's soldiers are beginning to desert or surrender to the Islamists in large numbers. Some commit suicide. Since the army was ordered to clear out the Islamist Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in July, the jihadists have retaliated with a series of deadly terrorist bombings targeting elite military compounds, including General Musharraf's own ultra-secure compound. Military morale is at its nadir. And although Pakistan has suffered defeats in war, there is no historical precedent for this sort of collapse of morale and discipline.

Military and More
To fully appreciate the “criticality”(Musharraf's word) of the situation, we need to know something about the unique role of Pakistan's military. (See “After Musharraf.”)

Unfortunately, the military is just about the only Pakistani state institution that actually works. A classic Muslim social pattern saw cohesive and heavily militarized tribes lead to weak central states, which weakness created a social vacuum that could only be filled by tribes. The modern version of this traditional causal circle features a powerful military bureaucracy, which weakens, and therefore gradually substitutes for, other state institutions.

The obvious example is the Pakistani military's usurpation of political power. But tha
t's just the beginning. Pakistan's military is an almost totally free-standing institution — a sort of state within a state. The military largely controls its own appointments, and even has independent sources of revenue which limit its reliance on public taxation — especially for its generous pensions and benefits system. At first, this amounted to, say, the Pakistani air force operating the nation's airline industry. But under Musharraf, the military, both directly, and through its retired officers (who often leave service in their 40's), now controls vast sections of Pakistan's state apparatus and economy — everything from universities, to the post office, to companies that make cement, soap, and even breakfast cereal.

More than ten million Pakistanis directly or indirectly derive their incomes from this vast military-dominated apparatus. And while retired military officers may not know everything they ought to about running a business, in comparison to widespread civilian corruption and incompetence, Pakistan's military is an efficiently-functioning meritocracy. Military education is extensive, serious, and liberal — teaching the classics of Western and Islamic philosophy and literature, and nowadays even incorporating classes in economics and business management. As members of the most disciplined, merit-based, and effective sector of society, military men have both esprit de corps and contempt for civilians. And again, in a vicious circle, the military increasingly replaces, and therefore further undercuts, poorly functioning sectors of the state, making added military expansion all the more necessary.

In one sense, much as in Turkey, Pakistan's military is an outpost of secular and liberal modernity. Yet who can blame Pakistan's civilian liberals for bemoaning this oddly militarized misfiring of the conventional democratic path? Even so, the army's domination of Pakistan's institutional life means that Musharraf's rationale for imposing an emergency may be something more than smoke and mirrors.

Undoubtedly, Musharraf acted to head off a Supreme Court decision negating his election. And surely the military is selfishly worried that sharing power with Bhutto might put a halt to the expansion of its domestic economic empire. Yet, for that very reason, the power-sharing arrangement with Bhutto might have split the military into warring factions — at a moment when the military itself is on the verge of being broken by its conflict with the Taliban. And if Pakistan's all-pervasive military actually did collapse from a combination of exhaustion, terror, and internal factional conflict, the way truly would be open to an Islamist takeover — or at least a chaotic civil war that would put control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal at risk.


Islamist Coup

Even if Musharraf's declaration of an emergency headed off a potentially deadly split within the military over the power-sharing agreement with Bhutto, the danger remains grave. Why wouldn't the jihadists take advantage of Musharraf's weakness? After all, the civil war has already begun, not only in the Taliban's ever-expanding zone of control in the northwest, but in an aggressive nation-wide campaign of terror attacks. With Musharraf's legitimacy now in doubt, and with the army busy suppressing opposition rallies, this would be the logical moment for Osama and his allies to mount a vastly more aggressive series of terror attacks aimed at toppling the state. It's hard to believe that the Islamist war on Pakistan's army isn't about to explode into a brand new phase. Yet if this doesn't happen, that in itself would give a revealing glimpse into the limits of jihadist power.

An Islamist coup is possible, then. Yet for all the army's problems, it is in many ways well-placed to resist a nation-wide jihadi onslaught. In Pakistan, ethnic and regional loyalties overlay and complicate conflicts over Islam. Although the Islamists are exercising unprecedented power throughout northwest Pakistan, their area of control is still largely limited to the ethnically Pashtun tribal region. But Punjab and the Sind are the demographic and cultural heartland of Pakistan, and Pashtun tribal Islamists (like the Taliban) are seen as outsiders there. Independent Islamist groups in Punjab and Sind are subject to rivalry and ethnic divisions, all of which makes a truly national Islamist military assault and/or terror campaign difficult to coordinate. And whether military or civilian, the educated elite in charge of Pakistan's bureaucracy and businesses agree that a regime run by Osama and his cohorts would be a disaster for Pakistan, alienating foreign allies, driving out investment, and in general bringing modernization to a halt. Clearly, there are serious barriers to an Islamist takeover of Pakistan.

So on the one hand, Pakistan’s military is at a low-point, and extremely vulnerable to further Islamist attacks. It would be surprising (and instructive) if a serious intensification of the incipient civil war between the military and the jihadists did not materialize at this point. And that, it seems to me, would likely quiet down Benazir Bhutto and her supporters, since Musharraf and his army in effect protects them from the jihadists. This protective role is precisely what Musharraf keeps claiming — and precisely what the his opponents insist on pooh-poohing. Sadly, we may be about to get more proof than we'd like that Musharraf was right.

The Army Strikes Back
On the other hand, while the jihadists may greatly escalate their attacks, they will be hard-pressed to actually capture the state. Too many powerful forces stand in their way. Given that, could Musharraf's military now regroup and successfully take the fight back to al-Qaeda? It's certainly possible. Who knows, the emergency might actually revitalize the military and stiffen its morale. But it seems equally likely that a terrifying Islamist offensive and further military setbacks might overcome the Pakistani public's resistance to American military help in clearing out Osama's mountain sanctuary. The prospect of a vastly more serious civil war with radical Islamists is truly frightening. Yet for that very reason, it may be the very thing that brings the American cavalry to the rescue.

So can we confidently dispose of the possibility of a successful Islamist coup and a nuclear-armed Talibanistan? Not quite. It is extremely difficult to gauge the potential extent of Islamist sympathy in Pakistan. On the one hand, shockingly large majorities of the public express a willingness to move toward some version of rule by Islamic law (the Taliban’s platform). Public support for Osama bin Laden is also shockingly high. Yet Islamist parties in Pakistan have rarely done well, and it’s difficult to say whether lip service to sharia law in an opinion survey equates to support for Islamist rule.

Coup Again
The danger is that varying shades of Islamist opinion in all sectors of society will coalesce. Zia ul Haq who, like Musharraf, once ruled Pakistan militarily for years, was himself an Islamist sympathizer. Zia infused the army with Islamism, and although his followers no longer dominate there, some retired officers still wait on the sidelines for an Islamist resurgence. Musharraf's generation of officers is secular and pro-American, yet we know next to nothing about the younger generation of military officers. Might they have latent Islamist sympathies? Pakistan's military takes most of its recruits from Punjab, but also from the Pashtun northwest (that is, from tribal areas now controlled by the Taliban). And we know that some military deserters and retired soldiers have been signing up to fight with the Taliban.
If a nationwide Islamist assault awakes a sleeping giant of pro-sharia sentiment in Pakistan's heartland, and also splits the army, the resulting chaos could put an Islamist state — or at least a nuclear bomb or two — within Osama's reach.

Smart Move
If none of this happens — if the jihadists fail to use the emergency as an opportunity to widen the incipient civil war — that in itself will tell us something important about their limitations. On the other hand, holding back from a major offensive while Musharraf is preoccupied with his democratic opposition might actually allow Osama to consolidate a permanent sanctuary in the tribal regions. Come to think of it, that could be the cagiest move of all.

No one really knows what's about to happen in Pakistan. The possibilities are many, and laying out scenarios is more likely to help us make sense of what eventually does happen than to precisely predict it. Yet I fear we may soon be looking at something more than a replay of Pakistani politics past. The real jihad may be just about to begin.

— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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