Armageddon in Islamabad

Bruce Riedel
Content Type
Journal Article
The National Interest
Issue Number
Publication Date
Center for the National Interest
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.
Islam, War
Political Geography
Pakistan, Afghanistan, United States
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. A JIHADIST state would presumably come to power through some combination of violence and intimidation, and the takeover would not be without its problems. But none would likely threaten the success of the transition. All, however, would lead to an increasingly unstable and violence-wracked state. Indeed, the Islamists would face significant internal opposition. The fifth of Pakistanis who are Shia would be extremely uneasy with a Sunni-militant regime and communal violence would probably intensify, with implications for Islamabad's ties with Tehran. Pakistan has long been shaken by bombings and murders orchestrated by extremist Sunni and Shia elements, sometimes stoked by the ISI. This could escalate into more extensive anti-Shia violence. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in the large cities of Sindh-Pakistan's southeasternmost province-would probably resist and have to be defeated by force. The MQM is the representative party of Muslims who fled India in 1947 and has become a secular and liberal force in recent years, but its appeal is limited to a minority. Though especially strong in Karachi, Pakistan's biggest city, the MQM is not a national party and its leadership is in exile in London, weakening its ability to stand up to extremists. It would fight for its life in Sindh but lacks the ability to lead a national resistance, and so it would be more of an annoying disruption than a real challenge to the new government. Large numbers of educated and Westernized Pakistanis would try to flee a new Islamic Emirate of Pakistan. They would find it difficult to find a port willing to take them, however, as security services around the world would insist on tight visa controls; potential states of refuge like the UK or Norway, both of which have large Pakistani émigré populations already, would face strong internal opposition to taking in more Muslims. The Gulf city-states like Abu Dhabi and Doha would probably take the most exiles, especially those with money. Imposition of harsh Islamic penalties for social reasons, land reforms and the flight of many with capital would damage an already-weak economy and discourage foreign investment and loans. The emirate would probably blame its economic difficulties on the outside world and use foreign pressure as an excuse for even-more draconian crackdowns inside. The army would be the most dangerous adversary. Some in the officer corps that would rather be in power themselves would certainly resist and might indeed try to stage a coup. The emirate would move to purge the armed forces of these potential coup plotters. It might also set up a new military force to act as a counterweight to the regular army, akin to the role of the SS in Nazi Germany or the Revolutionary Guard in Iran. The ISI in particular would be cleansed to eliminate any potential threats to the regime from secularists or those who seek more personal power. The new regime would be quick to take control of the nuclear arsenal as it purged the army of any dissident voices. And it would welcome Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri from their hiding places of the last decade (although they would presumably keep a low profile to avoid being attacked by outside security services). Certainly al-Qaeda, LET and a host of other terrorist groups would have much more room to operate, free of any significant constraints on their activities from the Pakistani authorities. Even worse, the new government might abet their terrorist activities, providing the use of embassies and missions abroad for staging operations. In the end, we would be left with an extremist-controlled Pakistan, infested with violence, an almost completely dysfunctional economy, harsh laws and even-harsher methods for imposing them, and above all a nuclear-armed nation controlled by terrorist sympathizers. THE EFFECTS of an extremist takeover would not end at Pakistan's borders. A worsening conflict between Sunni and Shia could easily seep into the rest of the Muslim world. Pakistan's influence in Afghanistan would deepen. The south and east of the country would be a virtual part of the Pakistani state. The commander of the faithful, Mullah Muhammad Omar, and his Quetta shura (ruling council) would emerge as the odds-on favorite to take over the area. The non-Pashtun majority in Afghanistan would certainly resist, but in the Pashtun belt across the south and east, the Afghan Taliban would be even stronger than it is now. Afghanistan would go back to looking much like it did pre-the American intervention in 2001, with a dominant Taliban backed by Pakistan fighting the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Shia backed by Iran, Russia and the central-Asian republics. Afghanistan would become a battleground for influence between Pakistan and Iran, as Sunni-dominated Pakistan and Shia-dominated Iran would find a war for ideological dominance almost irresistible. Both states would also be tempted to meddle with each other's minorities-the Shia in Pakistan and Sunni in Iran, as well as both countries' Baluchi minority. Baluchistan, Pakistan's southwestern province that neighbors both Afghanistan and Iran, is already unstable on both sides of the border. It would become another area of conflict. The low-intensity insurgencies already burning in the border areas would become more severe with outsiders fueling the fires. As the Islamic Emirate of Pakistan suppressed its Shia minority, Tehran would be forced to sit and watch because of Pakistan's nuclear weapons. And so Iran would certainly accelerate its nuclear-weapons-development program but would be years, if not decades, behind its neighbor. With many of the LET in power, a major mass-casualty attack on India like the November 2008 Mumbai bombings would be likely. And this time it could spark war. India has shown remarkable restraint over the last decade as the Pakistani army, militants in Pakistan or both have carried out provocations like the Kargil War in 1999, the attack on the Indian parliament in 2001 and the Mumbai raid last year. Of course, a big part of India's restraint is the lack of any good military option for retaliation that would avoid the risk of nuclear Armageddon. But if pressed hard enough, New Delhi may need to take some action. Blockading Karachi and demanding the closure of militant training camps might seem to be a way to increase pressure without firing the first shot but it carries a high risk of spiraling escalation. And of course any chance for a peace agreement in Kashmir would be dead. Violence in the region would rise. The new militant regime in Pakistan would increase support for the insurgency. And Israel would come into the emirate's crosshairs as a major target. Pakistan has always supported the Palestinian cause. In the past, most of the championing has been rhetorical, but an Islamic state would become a more practical supporter of Sunni groups like Hamas, giving money and arms. Pakistani embassies could become safe havens for terrorists pinpointing Zionist and Crusader targets. Of course, Pakistan could also provide the bomb. Farther away from Israel than Iran, Pakistan would be a harder foe for the Israelis to counter with force. And Israel has done little or no strategic thinking about the Pakistani threat. A militant Islamic state in Pakistan, the second-largest Muslim country and the only one with a nuclear arsenal, would have a massive ripple effect across the Islamic world. All of the existing Muslim regimes would be alarmed by the prospect of their own jihadists finding a new refuge and training facilities; the extremists would then have a new base from which to fight their home governments. The psychological impact on Muslim nations would be far more profound than previous Islamic takeovers in relatively remote or marginal states like Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia or Gaza. The global Islamic jihad, spearheaded by al-Qaeda, would proclaim the liberation of the ummah, or community, was at hand. In Pakistani-diaspora communities in the United Kingdom and the Gulf states the risk of terrorism would be even greater than it is today. The United States would have to take steps to curb travel by its citizens of Pakistani origin to their homeland. The damage that could be wrought is many magnitudes greater than the capabilities lent to al-Qaeda through having a safe haven in Afghanistan. Our options in facing down an extremist-controlled Pakistan would be far more limited than those we had in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. A JIHADIST Pakistan would be the most serious threat to the United States since the end of the cold war. Aligned with al-Qaeda and armed with nuclear weapons, the Islamic Emirate of Pakistan would be a nightmare. U.S. options for dealing with it would all be bad. Engagement would be nearly impossible as the new leadership in Islamabad would have no faith and little interest in any dialogue with the Crusaders and Zionists. If we retained an embassy in Pakistan, it would be at constant risk of attack-if not from the regime itself then from its allies like al-Qaeda. Islamabad would almost certainly demand an immediate and complete withdrawal of all foreign forces from neighboring Afghanistan and consider any counterterrorist operations on its territory cause for retaliation against American interests elsewhere. Since more than three-quarters of all of NATO's supplies in Afghanistan come via Karachi, the new emirate would have us in a tight bind. In an international forum, Pakistan would outdo Iran as the leader of the anti-Israel cause and constantly demand the handover of all of Kashmir from India. U.S. options to change the regime by a coup or by assisting dissidents like the MQM would be minimal. The United States is so unpopular in Pakistan today that American endorsement of a politician is the kiss of death. Ms. Bhutto learned this lesson literally. The Pakistani Shia community would look to Iran, not America, for help. Military options would be unappealing at best and counterproductive at worst. The United States would discover the same difficult choices Indian leaders have looked at for a decade. Striking terrorist training camps achieves virtually nothing since they can easily and cheaply be rebuilt. The risk of collateral damage-real or invented-probably creates more terrorists than the raids could kill. Even a successful operation creates new martyrs for the terrorists' propaganda machines. A naval blockade to coerce behavior change would mean imposing humanitarian suffering on the population. It would also prompt terrorist reprisals in and outside of South Asia. Combined with air strikes, a blockade might impose real costs on the jihadist regime but is unlikely to topple it and would be hard to sustain in the absence of a major provocation. Invasion á la Iraq in 2003 would require a land base nearby. Landlocked Afghanistan would be a risky place from which to work. Iran is a nonstarter. India might be prepared in some extreme scenario to attack with American forces, but that would rally every Pakistani to the extremists' cause. The Pakistanis would, of course, use their nuclear weapons to defend themselves. While they do not have delivery systems capable of reaching America, they could certainly destroy cities and bases in Afghanistan, India, the Gulf states and, if smuggled out ahead of time by terrorists, perhaps the United States. A victory in such a conflict would be Pyrrhic indeed. Of course, the hardest problem would be the day after. What would we do with a country twice the size of California with enormous poverty, almost 50 percent illiteracy and intense popular hatred for all that we stand for after we have fought a nuclear war to occupy it? The worst thing about the military option is that we might have little choice but to use it if al-Qaeda launched another 9/11-magnitude attack on the United States from a jihadist Pakistan. It is highly unlikely a jihadist Islamabad would turn over bin Laden for justice after a new "Manhattan raid," and sanctions would be a very unsatisfying response to thousands of deaths-or more if al-Qaeda had acquired one of Pakistan's bombs. A jihadist, nuclear-armed Pakistan is a scenario we need to avoid at all costs. That means working with the Pakistan we have today to try to improve its spotty record on terrorism and proliferation. There is good reason for pessimism. Working with the existing order in Pakistan may not succeed. But there is every reason to try, given the horrors of the alternative. FOR THE last sixty years American policy toward Pakistan has oscillated wildly between periods when Washington was entranced by Islamabad and embraced its policies without question (Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan and Bush 43), or sanctioned Pakistan and blamed it for either provoking wars or developing nuclear weapons (Johnson, Carter, Bush 41 and Clinton). In the love-affair years, Washington would build secret relationships (the U-2 base in Peshawar and the mujahideen war in the 1980s) and throw literally billions of dollars at Pakistan with little or no accountability. In the scorned years, Pakistan would be démarched to death and Washington would cut off all military and economic aid. Both approaches failed dismally. Moreover, America endorsed every Pakistani military dictator, no matter that they started wars with India and moved the country ever deeper into the jihadist embrace. John F. Kennedy entertained the first dictator, Ayub Khan, at Mount Vernon, the only time George Washington's home has ever witnessed a state dinner. Richard Nixon turned a blind eye to Pakistan's murder of hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis to keep his friends in the army in power-and his back channel to China open. Yet despite Nixon's support of Islamabad, India still scored an overwhelming victory against Pakistan in the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War. Ronald Reagan entertained Mohammad Zia ul-Haq as he encouraged the Arab jihadists that would become al-Qaeda. George W. Bush let Pervez Musharraf give the Afghan Taliban a sanctuary to kill American and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan. In contrast, LBJ cut off military aid when Pakistan started the 1965 war with India, and George H. W. Bush sanctioned Islamabad for building a bomb that Reagan had tacitly approved. Bill Clinton sanctioned the country again for testing the bomb after India goaded it into doing so (he had little choice, as the U.S. Congress mandated automatic sanctions for testing). What the U.S.-Pakistan relationship needs is constancy and consistency. We need to recognize that change in Pakistan will come when we engage reliably with the Pakistani people, support the democratic process and address Pakistan's legitimate security concerns. Candor needs to be the hallmark of an enduring commitment to civilian rule in Pakistan. U.S.-aid levels should not be the product of temper tantrums on Capitol Hill. We should help Pakistan deal with its illiteracy rate, because literate women will fight the Taliban. We should provide the Pakistani army with the helicopter fleet it needs to combat insurgents in the western badlands. We should stop trying to legislate Pakistani behavior by attaching conditions to aid legislation, a tactic that has consistently failed with Pakistan in the past. Our goal should be to convince Pakistanis that the existential threat to their liberty comes not from the CIA or India, but from al-Qaeda. We also need to engage India constructively on how to reduce and then end the tensions, including in Kashmir, that have resulted from partition. Ironically, the Pakistanis and Indians have made great progress on this issue behind the scenes in the last decade. Musharraf deserves credit for much of this. After trying to force India to give up Kashmir by limited war, nuclear intimidation and terror, he finally settled on a back-channel negotiation process. No one on either side denies how close to a deal they have come. Quiet and subtle American diplomacy should now try to advance this further. None of this will be easy. Pakistan is a complex and combustible society undergoing a severe crisis. America helped create that crisis over a long period of time. If we don't help Pakistan now, we may have to deal with a jihadist Pakistan later. That should focus our attention. Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer, is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He has advised four sitting presidents on Pakistan. He chaired an interagency review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Obama administration that was completed in March 2009.