Pakistani Conflict Scenarios
If Pakistan Were to Disintegrate...

In this essay, political scientist Herfried Münkler analyses Pakistan's on-going political crisis. What would happen if Pakistan were to disintegrate as a state and territorial unit?

Pervez Musharaf (photo: AP)
Doubts have increased as to whether Pervez Musharraf will be able to bring together the country's pro-Western and non-Islamist political forces

​​That Pakistan could slide down the slippery slope into a civil war that would culminate in a takeover by Islamist groupings cannot be ruled out.

The terrorist attacks of recent weeks, the demonstrations against President Prevez Musharraf, and the violent clamp-down by police and military forces are raising fears that what is currently the USA's most important ally in the region is about to be brought to its knees, which could leave the country's nuclear weapons and carrier systems in the hands of Islamists.

While Washington is extremely concerned about recent developments in Pakistan, Europe would not appear to have really registered the dangers involved. This is, among other things, most probably because it knows that it has no influence on political events in the country.

The threat of civil war

It is most likely that the USA is pursuing a two-pronged strategy in regard tp Pervez Musharraf: firstly, a possible end to Musharraf's political career must not be allowed to paralyze the armed forces, which would urgently be needed in such an event as a stabilising factor and an intact institution; secondly, Pakistan's relatively pro-Western forces – which include not only army officers, but also the country's upper class and large swathes of its middle class – should be united in order to repel the threatening onslaught of the Islamists.

It would seem reasonable to conclude from America's actions that Washington no longer believes that Musharraf will be able to bring together the country's pro-Western and non-Islamist political forces.

Washington is at the very least keeping its options open as regards Benazir Bhutto. But what if neither Musharraf nor Bhutto are able to get a handle on this task and if Pakistan descends into a civil war that would end in an Islamist seizure of power, as was the case thirty years ago in Iran?

In this regard, at least, Washington would appear to have learned from the mistakes of its Iran policy in the 1970s when it held fast to the Shah until the bitter end, leaving itself bereft of options when he was deposed.

An Islamist (time)bomb

It is justifiable to ask whether Pakistan has not already long since passed the point at which an Islamist seizure of power could have been prevented. If it has, Pakistan's nuclear bomb is destined to become an Islamist bomb.

First of all, it is important to note that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal has always been part of a mutual deterrent system involving India and that this would not be changed by an Islamist takeover. Pakistan's atomic weapons differ from the possible nuclear armament of Iran in that they are "linked" to India's nuclear weapons.

Since the country's foundation, Pakistan's attention has been fixed on its adversary, India, against whom it has waged and lost several wars. The feverish build-up of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal in the 1990s was done with India in mind and with a view to re-establishing the strategic balance that had been disturbed by India's accession to the club of atomic powers.

India, on the other hand, did not develop its nuclear arsenal with Pakistan in mind – its conventional military might is superior to that of Pakistan even without nuclear weapons – but rather with China in mind. Delhi believed that the only way to be able to withstand China's claims to hegemony in Eastern Asia was to become a nuclear power. In other words, Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is a reaction to a constellation that is deeply rooted in its geographical location.

The fact that Pakistani politics were fixated on India was demonstrated by the country's policy towards Afghanistan. Pakistan did everything it could to advance the overthrow of the Moscow-friendly regime in Kabul because, according to the political constellations of the day, this regime was a potential ally of India.

Strategic advantage over India

And so, Pakistan pumped money into the Islamic resistance and subsequently the Taliban regime in the hope of gaining a strategic advantage over India by securing Kabul as an ally. This geostrategic constellation would not be altered by an Islamist takeover in Islamabad, and would result in the strategic absorption of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

But can one really be sure that this will be the case? Or would the USA feel it necessary to mount pre-emptive strikes in order to neutralise Pakistan's nuclear weapons?

It is improbable that India would just stand by and watch the Islamists take to the helm in Pakistan, particularly as its own Muslim population would react to the political escalation across the border. Any increase in the influence of Pakistan's Islamists would result in an escalation of religious conflicts in India.

It cannot be ruled out that India would take advantage of Pakistan's domestic weakness in order to bring about what it considers to be a suitable solution to its long-running difficulties with Pakistan. Such a move would certainly tie up Pakistan's entire military potential. As long as this is the case, the West has no reason to apply to Pakistan the horror scenarios generated by Iranian nuclear armament.

Worst-case scenario

But what would happen if Pakistan were to disintegrate as a state and a territorial unit? What would happen if the country, which is only partially controlled by central powers as it is, were to fall apart and de-territorialized networks of terrorists, and possibly networks linked to international crime, were to obtain nuclear material from Pakistan's nuclear power plants?

This is indeed the worst-case security scenario because it would dramatically increase not only these organisations' ability to threaten, but also to blackmail. If this were to happen, it would make little difference whether the organisations in question were Islamist, anti-capitalist, or criminal.

De-territorialized political players in possession of weapons of mass destruction are a security catastrophe because they cannot be deterred. Only those who have a territory can be deterred. Territories makes the people living in those territories the victims of a process of mutual hostage-taking.

We are familiar with this process from the Cold War. That was an unpleasant, albeit not a hopeless situation. In short, the real threat to our security is less the seizure of power in Pakistan by the Islamists and more the disintegration if the Pakistani state.

Herfried Münkler

© NZZ/ 2007

This article was first published by the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

Herfried Münkler lectures in the theory of politics at the Humboldt University in Berlin. His most recent publications include: Imperien. Die Logik der Weltherrschaft – vom Alten Rom bis zu den Vereinigten Staaten (Empires: the logic of world rule from ancient Rome to the United States (Rowohlt 2005, paperback edition 2007)) and Der Wandel des Krieges. Von der Symmetrie zur Asymmetrie (The Transformation of War. From Symmetry to Asymmetry (Velbrück Wissenschaft 2006)).

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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