In 2009, I took a road trip across the Northeastern United States and asked friends at every stop for their opinion on what was likely to happen next in Pakistan. The predictions I heard were gathered into the following article, which was published on Wichaar.com in April 2009. I am reproducing that article below, followed by a few words about how things look to me now, two years later.
I recently went on a road trip across the North-Eastern United States and at every stop, the Pakistanis I met were talking about the situation in Pakistan. As is usually the case, everyone seemed to have their own pet theory, but for a change ALL theories shared at least two characteristics: they were all pessimistic in the short term and none of them believed the “official version” of events. Since there seems to be no consensus about the matter, a friend suggested that I should summarize the main theories I heard and circulate that document, asking for comments. I hope your comments will clarify things even if this document does not. So here, in no particular order, are the theories.
1. Things fall apart: This theory holds that all the various chickens have finally come home to roost. The elite has robbed the country blind and provided neither governance nor sustenance and now the revolution is upon us: the jihadis have a plan and the will to enforce it and the government has neither. The jihadis have already captured FATA and most of Malakand (a good 20% of NWFP) and are inevitably going to march onwards to Punjab and Sindh. The army is incapable of fighting these people (and parts of it are actively in cahoots with the jihadis) and no other armed force can match these people. The public has been mentally prepared for Islamic rule by 62 years of Pakistani education and those who do resist will be labeled heretics and apostates and ruthlessly killed. The majority will go along in the interest of peace and security. America will throw more good money after bad, but in the end the Viceroy and her staff will be climbing rope ladders onto helicopters and those members of the elite who are not smart enough to get out in time will be hanging from the end of the ladder as the last chopper pulls away from the embassy. Those left behind will brush up their kalimas and shorten their shalwars and life will go on. The Taliban will run the country and all institutions will be cleansed and remodeled in their image.
2. Jihadi Army: The army is the army of Pakistan. Pakistan is an Islamic state. They know what to do. They will collect what they can from the Americans because we need some infidel technologies that we don’t have in our own hands yet, but one glorious day, we will purge the apostate officers and switch to full jihadi colors. The country will be ruled with an iron hand by some jihadi general, not by some mullah from FATA. All corrupt people will be shot. Many non-corrupt people will also be shot. Allah’s law will prevail in Allah’s land. And then we will deal with Afghanistan (large scale massacre of all apostates to be held in the stadium), India, Iran and the rest of the world in that order.
3. Controlled burn: This theory holds that there is no chance of any collapse or jihadi takeover. What we are seeing are the advanced stages of a Jedi negotiation (or maybe a Sith negotiation would be a better term). The army wants more money and this is a controlled burn. They let the Taliban shoot up some schools and courts (all bloody useless civilian institutions anyway). Panic spreads across the land. People like John Kerry come to Islamabad and almost shit in their pants at the thought of Taliban “60 miles away from the capital”. Just as Zia played the drunken Charlie Wilson and the whole Reagan team for fools, the current high command is playing on.
4. The coming war on the Indian border: The border of India is on the Indus, not on the Radcliffe line. The Taliban will take over the mountains, but they will be resisted at the edge of the plains. The Americans will train the army to fight this new war. There will be setbacks and loads of violence, but in the end the center will hold. America will fight a new kind of drone war in the mountains and in time, the beards will be forced to negotiate. Along the way, many wedding parties will also get bombed but you cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs. The Indian part of Pakistan will make peace with India and India will help us fight the Northern invaders. The army high command is NOT jihadi. But they lack capacity and need time to build it up. They need to be supported and strengthened. America should pay them more money and pay more heed to their tactical advice.
5. Buffer state: a variant of the above theory holds that Punjab is the historic buffer of India. All sorts of invaders come in, fight over the Punjab and capture it. Then the peasants get to work. We might even convert to whatever barbaric ideology they have brought, but in time the peasants outbreed and outflank the invaders. In the end, the invaders become Indian and help us outbreed and outlast the next invading horde. We win by “assimilation and attrition”. I am not sure if this is an optimistic theory or a pessimistic one. In India, the two are practically the same anyway.
6. No one seemed to think that peace would break out soon. No one thought the “peace deal” is the end of the matter. Jihadi sympathizers regard it as a way for the Taliban to consolidate in Swat before the inevitable advance into new territory. Anti-jihadis regard it as a necessary break to buy time while the new FC is trained, or as a surrender, or as an army plot, but NOT as a peace deal that leads to any kind of stable peace by some direct route.
My personal opinion in 2009: The state is stronger than many people think. But it is grossly incompetent and the elite itself is split and infiltrated by jihadi sympathizers. It won’t collapse soon, but all problems will continue to get worse for the foreseeable future. A big drone offensive is coming and there will be much secondary fighting in Pakistan. But there is at least a 50-50 chance that Jihadistan will NOT be able to expand into the Punjab and Sindh (though much terrorism will surely happen). The army will be gradually purged of jihadis and will one day come around to being a serious anti-jihadi force, but it won’t be easy and it may not happen. If the army continues to have jihadi sympathies, then all bets are off and many horrendous scenarios are imaginable. The US embassy may know more than we do. On the other hand, their declassified documents make it clear that they are incredibly naïve and racist in their assumptions and tend to regard the people they have colonized as mildly retarded children; so there is a good chance they don’t know batshit about what is going on, but are able to present impressive looking PowerPoints about three cups of tea with Kiyani to their bosses back home.
So what would I change today? I think the general outline remains the same and my leftist friends remain convinced that the army has not changed its spots and is still maintaining its links with jihadists while playing a double game with the US. But I am going to go out on a limb and say that I think the army is now serious about making a deal with India over Kashmir (both countries keep their current borders but allow free movement and trade across the existing line of control) and has put its jihadi dreams into very deep cold storage. But while their priorities may have changed, their propaganda narrative remains stuck in the same old anti-Indian, Jewish conspiracy mode. If anything, the usual “international Jewish-Hindu conspiracy” theory has become more entrenched. Whether the army seriously believes the old narrative is still useful, or whether this propaganda is now mainly used as a smokescreen to protect GHQ’s commanding position in national discourse while changing course below the radar is not clear to me.
Meanwhile, the domestic political picture remains confused and governance and corruption have gone from bad to worse. The PPP and the PMLN have cooperated more than most people imagined possible and the political class as a whole has done better than their terrible media reputation would suggest, but they have not been able to raise their performance to any significantly improved level. Inflation and poor economic performance have made the lives of the poor even more painful and elite corruption is as bad as ever. So while the deep state may not be on its previous suicidal Jihadist path, they risk becoming irrelevant if they do not improve governance and economic management fairly quickly. It is concievable that if some new economic disaster hits, then the ruling elite may face a very serious revolt. In addition, blasphemy and other such distractions remain potent tools in the hands of the religious right and it is possible that the army may lose control of the Islamists and the Islamist insurgency could spread deeper into Punjab. Still, if I had to make a guess one way or the other, I would say that the state will survive in more or less present format and while terrorism will continue, the existing system may still become reasonably stable. This is not saying much, but may be better than the alternatives.
Finally, I would add that this narrative is obviously politically incorrect and does not make too many allowances for liberal sensitivities. e.g. I do not write as if all evil is due to powerful White people and the innocent Brown folk will return to a state of nature once imperialism pulls out its oil-soaked fangs. That is not because I consider the imperialists to be necessarily good, but because I do not regard everyone else as lacking in agency. More on that next month, but if this narrative seems distant from the Imran Khan view of recent history, you can check out some of my reasons here.