The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Why Pakistan’s Decline Is Almost Inevitable

Image by takebackpackistan

Image by takebackpackistan

Benazir Bhutto’s niece, Fatima Bhutto, lays out the reasons for decline as  succinctly as anyone I’ve read:

The Taliban and their ilk, on the other hand, are able to seat themselves in towns and villages across Pakistan without much difficulty largely because they do not come empty-handed. In a country that has a literacy rate of around 30 percent, the Islamists set up madrassas and educate local children for free. In districts where government hospitals are not fit for animals, they set up medical camps—in fact, they’ve been doing medical relief work since the 2005 earthquake hit Northern Pakistan. Where there is no electricity, because the local government officials have placed their friends and relatives in charge of local electrical plants, the Islamists bring generators. In short, they fill a vacuum that the state, through political negligence and gross graft, has created.

To combat the Taliban’s incursions further into poverty-stricken parts of the country, Pakistan’s government only has to do its job less leisurely. That’s the frightening truth.

Napoleon once said that the moral is to the physical as ten is to one.  My simple rule of thumb for determining who will win civil and guerilla wars is “who is the government?”  Now if I were to ask 100 people who the government of northwest Pakistan is, 99 would probably say “the government of Pakistan.”

No.  Government is what government does and Taliban is the government in most of that region.  The organization which supplies security, social services and law is the government, and it doesn’t matter who is recognized by foreign powers.  This is a mistake which the West makes over and over and over again, most recently in Somalia when the US greenlighted and aided in the destruction of Somalia incipient government, the Islamic Courts Union, plunging the country back into even worse anarchy than before, and pretending that the foreign chosen “interim government”, which had no popular support, was actually a government.

Now Napoleon didn’t say the moral is to the physical as infinity to one.  If you’re badly enough outgunned and outnumbered, well, being the government may not be enough, especially if you’ve only been the government for a brief time.

This is why a lot of analysts believe that Pakistan can never “fall”, because the Pakistani army is very powerful.

I am far less sanguine.  The army has shown very little willingness or ability to fight the Pakistani Taliban.  It is unclear to me that the Pakistani army is willing to fight the Taliban, at least all out and if ordered to do so that it would obey that order, either at the top level, or at the operational level.  Which is to say, just because the “President” orders it to do something, doesn’t mean it will, and even if the military took back over through another coup (quite likely) that officers and even line soldiers are willing to be used against the Taliban, when the Taliban is actually a more effective government than they one they ostensibly serve.

The legitimacy of a government comes from doing what a government does.  The Pakistani “government” is less of a government to most of the country than the Pakistani Taliban.  The danger is that it will continue to expand into places where the Islamabad government is not actually acting as a government, till it controls most of the countryside and some of the smaller cities.  From there it will likely reach an accommodation with the army.

Although they aren’t communists, this is classical Maoist style countryside to city guerilla strategy.  By the time the major cities fall, they will be all that is left, completely isolated from the rest of the country.

The Pakistani army is powerful, but it is only an army, not a government.

Government is as government does.  If the current Pakistani government wants to stay in charge, Fatima is right, it needs to do its job.  If it doesn’t, those who are willing to do the job will take over.


1. Fatima does have an axe to grind with the other faction of her family, but that doesn’t make her statements inaccurate.

2. Certainly Juan Cole is correct that the government is not likely to fall in the next 6 months to a year. In fact it might never fall, per se.  Despite the fact that Hezbollah is more powerful than the Lebanese central government, that government still exists.


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  1. clichy

    One very, very small criticism, Ian.

    Most times the punctuation mark goes inside the quotations. Just something that gets me crazy especially since I had to go to my daughter’s 3rd grade teacher with three grammar/English books, in addition to the Chicago Manual of Style, to show her why my daughter’s English work was correct. The teacher, who had just finished a master’s in education, told me this was how she had learned it in school and no one had ever pointed it out to her. Shows you how many of her papers in college were actually read.

  2. Ian Welsh

    lol. Fixed.

    As for college papers, don’t get me started. I used to tutor people in essay writing (though, as noted by many I’m not the best grammarian around), and, well, let’s just say that it was clear neither tests nor papers are read with any care by most TAs. The rare profs who care enough to read or mark did tend to be slightly better.

  3. Suspenders

    I’m curious, Ian, to hear what you think would happen if the Taliban were to take control. Do you think India or the States would intervene somehow?

  4. Ian Welsh

    Well, Pakistan has nukes. So, they may try to seize them, but if they fail and the government of Pakistan/military makes a credible threat of using them…

    Plus, despite the fact that the Indian military is larger than Pakistan’s, what I know of its quality… well, let’s just say I’m not sure the smart money is really on India in in a conventional war. Now if the US is supply air cover, things change.

    But I’ve always felt there are two key pieces on the board in the Islamic world – Pakistan for nukes, SA for oil. In both cases it’s kind of hard to do anything about it if they fall. I suppose you can go to hardcore sanctions on Pakistan (you can’t on SA without cutting your own throat, which is why it’s the other key piece) but that could well backfire very badly.

    And if you do do something major militarily, well, the Iraq mess will look clean tidy and succesful. (More on Iraq in a post later. The game there is not over, it’s not even at the beginning of the end, though it is near the end of the middle.)_

  5. I remember vividly seeing at least 50-100 decrepit old T-62s on the road from Jodphur to Jaisalmer, which lies only 40 kilometers from the Pak border along the Thaar Desert. Not too mention loads and loads of old Soviet APCs, artillery and various supporting vehicles. India, contra the public image it shows to the world, is a very heavily militarized nation. But I’m with Ian on this. What I saw didn’t inspire a lot of confidence. The Indians are good at casual brutality–I mean, just look at how they treat each other–but organized warfare? I don’t see them faring well against a Pakistani army as equally as decrepit. If there is one thing the Paks have that the Indians don’t is hate. The Indians are much more insouciant about the Paks, than the Paks are about the Indians. And that gives the Paks a moral edge. But, as you say, if the US were to provide air cover it would be a different fight.

  6. Why Pakistan Will Not Become a Theocracy

    The Pakistani Parliament has now passed the bill authorizing Shari’a laws in Swat – and perhaps in other territories. Punjab, according to the NYT report, United Militants Threaten Pakistan’s Populous Heart is also in grave danger of going Islamic in a meta-way. Baluchistan has broken out into violence and protests since the president of the Baluch National Movement, Mir Ghulam Mohammad, was kidnapped (along with two other senior associates), shot to death and then their bodies ditched from a helicopter. The primary suspicion falls upon the military or military intelligence. That leaves us Sindh. Karachi, the biggest city in Pakistan, is having a battle of the bands. More seriously, it is also been the scene for ethnic riots against the Baluchi recently.

    In the meantime, the Obama administration has, to this point, authorized over 60 drone attacks for an al-Qaeda kill rate of 2%. Wonderful.

    So, given all this, is there a likelihood of an Islamic Revolution in Pakistan? Is it Game Over?


  7. senecal

    clichy: there are so many exceptions to the quotation mark rule that it’s futile to worry about it. It’s even worse in French, where speeches are interrupted by narrator comments without new end or beginning quotation marks. I more often got slammed for a different quotation mark violation, which Ian commits more than once above — putting a word like “government” in quotations to indicate an ironic attitude toward the word you yourself are using.

  8. Ian Welsh

    Oh well, I’m still going to keep using “scare” quotes, that’s for sure. At least in blog writing. Not something I would do in fiction.

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