Armageddon in Islamabad

Armageddon in Islamabad

Mini Teaser: Don’t be fooled by the recent positive news from Islamabad. We face the potential of a nuclear-armed state run by Islamic extremists. The consequences of a Taliban-led takeover of Islamabad would be devastating.

by Author(s): 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.

Image: Pullquote: Pakistan today is a country in the intensive-care ward of the global state system. Many expect it will fail to recover.Essay Types: Essay