Unfortunately the Obama administration has been falling for this one, putting pressure on the weak civilian government to initiate a massive heavy campaign in the Swat valley, leaving up to a million and a half (you read that correctly) refugees.
One of the chief counsels on this topic to the administration comes from Bruce Riedel from the Saban Center. He worked on a brief for the President that was part of Obama’s assessment of his Af-Pak (or is it Pak-Af?) policy. Here’s a summary of his findings via the Brookings Website:
Just before her murder in December 2007 former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto said, “I now think Al Qaeda can be marching on Islamabad in two to four years.” Today her prophecy seems all too real.
Al Qaeda’s allies in Pakistan, the Taliban, Lashkar e Tayyba, and other extreme jihadists, are becoming increasingly powerful. They are no longer confined to the tribal belt along the Afghan border but have built strong bases of support in the nation’s heartland, the Punjab, and in the major cities. The mayor of Karachi, a mega city of 18 million, tells me the Taliban alliance is now threatening to take over his city, the country’s only major port and NATO’s logistical supply line for the war in Afghanistan. A jihadist state in Pakistan is neither imminent nor inevitable, it may not be likely, but it is a real possibility.
al-Qaeda marching on Islamabad? I don’t mean to speak ill of the (tragically) dead here, but what the hell does that even mean? al-Qaeda is after some Caliphate that will never exist. In Reza Aslan’s terms they are cosmic warriors. They hate the state which is to them a sign of Western imperalism. All they can do is destroy. They are in the truest sense of the word nihilists. al-Qaeda is dangerous insofar as they can wreck death and destruction; they are not dangerous insofar as their political ideology has no ability ever to be made real.
Now the other groups–what the administration is now calling the terrorist/extremist syndicate–that Reidel mentions some of whom are after a governance. e.g. Afghanistani and Pakistani Tablian both. Both again recall that during the Afghan Taliban period of rule, they did not heavily govern as such but rather sought to impose a moral (dys)utopian vision on the country. Now they are more like a mafia, in which case syndicate is a better term, but one that works against the grain of the US’ own policy in the region. [i.e. You usually don’t send aerial bombardments and tanks against the Cosa Nostra].
So what is this jihadist state Reidel is talking about?
As Peter Bergen (h/t Juan Cole) points out that it is quite absurd to imagine the Taliban or any such group frontally winning a conventional war against the Pakistani military. The Pakistani military as the analysts all say is still too built around conventional war (against India) to fight counterinsurgency. Which is why the Taliban & related groups are never on Allah’s Green earth going to fight them in that manner. Bergen also correctly points out that the Pakistani electorate by and large has rejected politically extreme parties.
But even as sane a commentary (and one from a man who knows the region like few Westerners on the planet) still focuses on this all or nothing, the state is everything framework. There still needs to be some learning about the post-Cold War world. The issue is not taking over a state but rather creating a statelet within a hollowed out state from which to operate.
So a better question: Could Pakistan become hollowed out? Hollowed is relegated basically to the capital and formally in charge though practically not so much.
A few scenarios that could initiate such a sequence:
A) Regionalism and the breakup of the state along the example of Yugoslavia (with Balochistan maybe first to go). Bergen’s conclusion here is extremely relevant:
A new Pakistan leader will have to emerge who has the courage to say something like the following: “I have a plan. It is a Pakistani plan and not an American plan. Our main enemy is no longer India; if we go to war again, we may well destroy each other with our nuclear weapons. Our new enemy is the militants claiming to act for Islam in our midst. They do not represent the Pakistan that our great founder, Ali Jinnah, envisioned; a country for Muslims living in peace, not an ideologically Islamist state. We will make no peace deals with the Taliban again. Every time we have done such a deal the Taliban have used it as a prelude to steal more of our land and impose their brutal rule on more of our citizens. We will task and train our military for an effective campaign against the militants, and we will wipe them off our lands.”
i.e. A politician who can articulate the purpose of Pakistan in the 21st century. A state that would truly become one of the powers that be in the world that its deficiencies currently prevent it from being. e.g. Feckless, corrupt civilian leadership, the history of the ISI in bed with terrorist elements, the aristocratic feudal plutocracy, and its insane continued focus (near paranoia at points) on India. The US policy does not help but verify (though not intentionally) the increasing conspiracy theory among Pakistanis that the US is coming to carve the country up. I’m not sure what the possibility for this occurring is. Minus someone stepping up and articulating the kind of vision Bergen outlines for the country, then this scenario grows more likely (though by no means inevitable) overtime. Though I think for now it’s still fairly remote.
B) While Reidel acts as if the spread of the extremists is going to lead to some Pakistani jihadi state, what it means in actuality is the possibility of more and more deadly urban terror in Pakistan. Particularly as a retaliation to the current assault in Swat. Recall the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the attack on the Marriott Hotel, as well as extended bombings to the Indian embassy in Kabul and the horrible attacks in Mumbai. The jihadis don’t need (or I think even want to) take over the state. They need to inflict psychological (4th Gen Warfare) damage on the populace, with the fear paralyzing decision-making and information processing thereby breaking the OODA loop between gov’t/ military and getting them to back off, to create their own fiefdom. Presumably the truce that fell through was exactly this movement. We will see if this new offensive can really break some of the cross-country networks. The jury is out on this one.
So if by on the brink is meant a la Reidel on the brink of becoming a jihadi state, then no. Bergen and Cole are right on this point. The military, the populace, assorted media/judicial elements are too strong for that to occur. Basing policy on such a flawed read of the situation will not lead anywhere good seems to me. The real danger is a weakning of the state, leading to anarchic pockets of criminality and potentially exported terror. This possibility is real in Pakistan’s case.