Pakistan is close to the brink, perhaps not to a meltdown of the government, but to a permanent state of anarchy, as the Islamist revolutionaries led by the Taliban and their many allies take more territory, and state power shrinks. There will be no mass revolutionary uprising like in Iran in 1979 or storming of the citadels of power as in Vietnam and Cambodia; rather we can expect a slow, insidious, long-burning fuse of fear, terror, and paralysis that the Taliban have lit and that the state is unable, and partly unwilling, to douse.
In northern Pakistan, where the Taliban and their allies are largely in control, the situation is critical. State institutions are paralyzed, and over one million people have fled their homes. The provincial government of North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) has gone into hiding, and law and order have collapsed, with 180 kidnappings for ransom in the NWFP capital of Peshawar in the first months of this year alone. The overall economy is crashing, with drastic power cuts across the country as industry shuts down. Joblessness and lack of access to schools among the young are widespread, creating a new source of recruits to the Taliban. Zar-dari and Gilani have spent the past year battling their political rivals instead of facing up to the Taliban threat and the economic crisis.
Much press is focused on the threat that the Taliban will somehow get their hands on Pakistan's nuclear weapons. While this possibility cannot be completely dismissed, it seems silly to focus on that possibility over the very tangible catastrophe of Pakistan's slow descent into chaos. We should be under no illusions that we can or should secure Pakistan against their own domestic insurgencies, but we do have to understand that a failed Pakistani state will result in a level of danger to us that we haven't seen since prior to 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan:
The Taliban in Swat quickly grew to more than eight thousand fighters, including hundreds of foreign and al-Qaeda militants, seasoned Pashtun fighters from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and extremist groups from Punjab and Karachi. They invited Osama bin Laden to come live in Swat. In fact al-Qaeda and the Taliban had targeted Swat three years earlier in their search for a safe, secure sanctuary that would be at a good distance from the Afghan border, with better facilities for an insurgency than FATA, as well as far away from the US drone missiles that have been falling on the tribal areas, killing Taliban leaders.
If al Qaeda has their way then, Swat will become the sort of safe haven that they haven't operated in since the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. This is by far the greatest danger that the deteriorating situation present to us. Naturally, if the Pakistani army is engaged in combat with the Taliban al Qaeda will not be entirely free to plot attacks against the West, and much of their effort may be focused on launching suicide attacks and other terrorist operations on parts of Pakistan still controlled by the government. But they will be freer to operate than at any time since the Taliban fell and barring operations on the part of our military deeper into Pakistan than anything we've seen before, they will be entirely free of harassment by our forces.
Rashid also answers the question of why Pakistan is so much worse off than Afghanistan, which faces a related Taliban insurgency:
The insurgency in Pakistan is perhaps even more deadly than the one in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan there is only one ethnic group strongly opposing the government—the Pashtuns who make up the Taliban—and so fighting is largely limited to the south and east of the country, while the other major ethnic groups in the west and the north are vehemently anti-Taliban. Moreover, more than a few Pashtuns and their tribal leaders support the Karzai government. In Pakistan, the Pashtun Taliban are now being aided and abetted by extremists from all the major ethnic groups in Pakistan. They may not be popular but they generate fear and terror from Karachi on the south coast to Peshawar on the Afghan border.
In Afghanistan the state is weak and unpopular but it is heavily backed by the US and NATO military presence. In addition, the Afghans have several things going for them. They are tired of nearly thirty years of war; they have already suffered under a Taliban regime and don't want a return of Taliban rule; they crave development and education; and they are fiercely patriotic, which has kept the country together despite the bloodshed. The Afghans have always refused to see their country divided.
In Pakistan there is no such broad national identity or unity.
Rashid notes the domestic insurgency in Baloch, where separatists are looking to break away from Pakistan, and the growing divide between rich and poor, are divisions that the Taliban are capable of exploiting. Decades of war and an eagerness for peace helped fuel the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Social disunity and division may do the same for the Pakistani Taliban.
Rashid arrives at this conclusion:
The last two years have bought some hope in the growth of the middle class, an articulate and increasingly influential civil society made up partly of urban professionals and publicly involved women. Most Pakistanis are not Islamic extremists and believe in moderate and spiritual forms of Islam, including Sufism. However, Pakistan is now reaching a tipping point. There is a chronic failure of leadership, whether by civilian politicians or the army. President Zardari's decision to invade Swat in early May came only after pressure was applied by the Obama administration and the army and the government had been left with no other palatable options. But with the Taliban opening new fronts, it will soon become impossible for the army to respond to the multiple threats it faces on so many geographically distant battlefields. The Taliban's campaigns to assassinate politicians and administrators have demoralized the government.
The Obama administration can provide money and weapons but it cannot recreate the state's will to resist the Taliban and pursue more effective policies. Pakistan desperately needs international aid, but its leaders must first define a strategy that demonstrates to its own people and other nations that it is willing to stand up to the Taliban and show the country a way forward.
In other words, there's almost nothing we can do about the worsening security situation in Pakistan without more decisive action by the Pakistani government. Despite all of our weapons and money, the fate of Pakistan is almost entirely out of our hands.