The threat to Pakistan

An unintended consequence of the allied assault on Afghanistan could be the destabilization of neighboring Pakistan, a nuclear country governed by a military ruler. Could Pakistan fall victim to a fundamentalist coup?

Why is Pakistan so volatile?

Because it is extremely poor, highly militarized, and undemocratic. The Muslim state is home to 145 million people—over 40 percent of whom are younger than 14—with an annual income per capita of only $440. The current military regime is heavily dependent on international creditors, owing more than $36 billion in foreign loans. But the nation spends a disproportionate amount of its gross domestic product—more than 6 percent—on its armed forces. Interest on debt and defense spending eat up two-thirds of Pakistan’s annual budget.

Why is the army so dominant?

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Partly because Pakistan has spent so much of its existence squaring off against India. Ever since it was created out of the partitioning of British colonial India in 1947, Pakistan has been embroiled with India in a bloody dispute over the sovereignty of Kashmir, a predominantly Muslim region. Pakistan inherited none of colonial India’s relatively modernized industry or infrastructure, so the military was the only institution capable of knitting the nation’s ethnic and regional factions together. The country has suffered one military coup after another. The current leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, seized power from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless coup in 1999 and declared himself president just this past June.

Is the army influenced by Islamic fundamentalism?

Initially, the army took pride in its professional military ethic. But that changed in the late 1970s when another general, the devout Muslim Zia al-Huq, seized power and encouraged the Islamization of the armed forces, not least as a way of motivating them against the Soviet invaders of neighboring Afghanistan. Zia allowed servicemen to go to Islamic schools (madrasas), where they would train Afghan cadres and equip them with arms supplied by the U.S. and Arab governments. The result was an increasing religious fervor among the junior ranks of the military and the creation of a parallel armed force of madrasa soldiers not under the control of the state. Now several senior officers in the army also have fundamentalist leanings, as do members of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, including A.Q. Khan, the self-proclaimed father of the Pakistani atomic bomb.

Is Musharraf a fundamentalist?

No, but he is heavily dependent on several fundamentalist generals who helped him during his coup and who believe in maintaining good relations with the Taliban. Moreover, it was Musharraf himself, as director of military operations under former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who, with the help of the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (see accompanying story), helped fashion the Taliban out of the madrasa cadres. Indeed, his first action after seizing power from Sharif was to thwart a covert joint operation Sharif had organized with the CIA to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. Still, it was not religion that underlay Musharraf’s strong support for the Taliban so much as it was Pakistan’s longstanding fear of destabilization on its northwestern frontier.

Why is that border so fragile?

Because the border, which the British created in 1893, artificially divides the Pashtun tribes of northwest Pakistan from those of southern Afghanistan (who make up the main power base of the Taliban). So Pashtun loyalties tend to lie with the Taliban in Kandahar rather than with the military and political elite in Islamabad. Pakistan is already home to 1.5 million Afghan refugees displaced by two decades of war; the fear is that a prolonged campaign against the Taliban would result in millions more streaming over the border—many of them Taliban fighters. That in turn could provoke a fundamentalist coup.

What would such a coup mean to the West?

It could be disastrous, because of Pakistan’s nuclear capability. When Pakistan started developing nuclear weapons in the 1970s, the U.S. initially responded with strict sanctions. But after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the sanctions were lifted to allow military aid to flow to Afghan rebels. Aided by China, Pakistan continued its research and is now thought to have enough highly enriched uranium to make 23 to 29 nuclear weapons. A fundamentalist regime in Islamabad would be likely to drastically escalate the Kashmir conflict with India. The worst-case scenario: nuclear war.

Is a coup likely?

No. The anti-Musharraf demonstrations that get so much TV airtime are confined to ethnic-Pashtun regions, and even there they represent a small fraction of the population. More than half of Pakistan’s people (and about 70 percent of the officer corps) are Punjabis, who would be unlikely to support a Pashtun fundamentalist regime. Moreover, even before Sept. 11, Musharraf was losing patience with the Taliban. This summer he banned two extremist Muslim groups and he has now reshuffled two pro-Taliban generals out of positions of power. The crucial issue is probably the economy, which remains precarious. But its problems will ease now that President Bush has agreed to waive the economic sanctions imposed after Musharraf’s coup, in exchange for Musharraf’s promise to provide the U.S. with intelligence and logistical support. Most reassuring, last week’s U.S.-Pakistan agreement to try to forge a multiethnic Afghan government to succeed the Taliban is likely to be popular, or at least acceptable, across Pakistan.

The ISI and the Taliban

The Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, founded by a British army officer in 1948, is one of the most feared and formidable institutions in Pakistan, a state-within-a-state answerable neither to the army nor to the president. The organization, which consists of about 10,000 military and civilian staff, is charged with managing covert operations outside Pakistan. It also supplies weapons, training, and assistance to fighters in Punjab and Kashmir, to radicals in India’s eastern states, and to Islamic rebels in Burma. It is active in domestic politics, too: It is believed to have helped rig the 1990 elections, which brought about the defeat of Benazir Bhutto’s party, and is even suspected of plotting the death of Bhutto’s brother.

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