The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Troubling Advances in Pakistan: Signs of Failure? (updated)

April 23, 2009

My first semester in graduate school I had the pleasure of attending a talk by General Wesley Clark (Ret.). He gave the talk not soon after the attacks of September 11th and the US offensive in Afghanistan. At the time, Clark was just begining a PR offensive that would eventually position him as a contender for the Democratic nomination in 2004.

During the Q&A I asked him a question about the regional dynamics going forward as a result of the Afghanistan offensive. While not criticizing the move (I was for it), I questioned what the potential fallout could be in terms of domestic politics within Pakistan and interstate dynamics, particularly with regards to Iran and Iraq. On Pakistan, I questioned whether we had a solid strategy for balancing our need for strategic support from the Pakistani government with the potential domestic disaster that might ensue as a result of their ‘switching sides’ and the longterm instability we would inevitably have to their north. I asked whether we had a plan to ensure domestically stability in both Afghanistan and Pakistan when major military operations in the former ceased. He somewhat chuckled and asked, “You’re not talking about nation-building, right?” The line garnered some laughs from the audience and he then went on to basically avoid the question.

I bring up this anecdote because this remains a major issue for US foreign policy–one that I would say has become even more pressing given recent events, such as the ever increasing civil war (as Dan said, let’s call it what it is) within Pakistan.

Yesterday, Taliban militants managed to extend their control of areas in Northern Pakistan by taking the district of Buner–a mere 70 miles from the capital of Islamabad. This represents the continuation of a trend whereby the Taliban pushes deeper and deeper into Pakistan, even after a mid-February truce that effectively created a ‘safe haven’ for the militants in Swat Valley.

At that time, many called the truce a massive misstep, one that would undoubtedly backfire and lead to further aggression by the militants. One major reason was that the Pakistani military would move into a ‘reactive’ mode–rather than staying on the offensive against the Taliban and trying to both defend and recapture lost territory, the military would simply wait in reserve if the Taliban attempted to make further advances, thereby violating the terms of the truce. Yesterday’s events would seem a perfect example of such a violation. The question now is, what’s next?

That is unclear. The US has been expanding its covert war against militants in the tribal areas for some time, while at the same time pressuring Pakistan (in particular, the ISI) to sever ties to the Taliban and increase relations with India. Some believe this is a bad idea, or at least isn’t very pratical. In either case, it doesn’t address the more urgent and strategically relevant issue of whether or not Pakistan is now headed towards a true collapse into failed-state status. The country has long been internally fractured along ethnic, tribal, and religious lines. The state never had full control over its own territory, but the kind of territorial conquest that we are seeing now is, to my (admittedly limited) knowledge, unprecedented since at least the 1990’s (note: readers with better background please feel free to weigh in with comments).

Failed states are always dangerous and pose significant problems, both regionally and globally, for other states. Pakistan has the obvious capacity to pose a problem the likes of which we have never seen–as the combination of a nuclear state falling into the hands of religious militants strikes me as uniquely dangerous.

The US approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan post-911 seems to have helped lay the groundwork for the current situation. US military strategy in Afghanistan was both effective and flawed, allowing key militants to escape and regroup (notably in the Afghan-Pakistan border region). Additionally, without a clear plan to sure up domestic stability in Pakistan we essentially moved the problem of religious militants from one geographic location to another–one that will have a far greater impact on security if it goes the way of the failed state.

I am not arguing that we shouldn’t have pressured Pakistan into an uneasy alliance with the US post-911. What I am arguing is that by doing so without proper attention being paid to the longterm dynamics we would set in motion, and not adequatley planning to address those dynamics in a constructive way, we may have simply set off a very ‘long fuse’ that is nearing its end.

Update I

John Robb weighs in with his thoughts on the likelihood of Pakistan becoming a ‘hollow state’.

The reaction of Pakistan’s authorities has been ineffective to say the least. I’d say this is both a problem of will and one of capabilities.

As some have voiced, we could end up invading the country to secure their nuclear assets if things continue to deteriorate towards state failure…

Update II

Some positive developments, for now.  It appears that a compellent threat from the Pakistani military has worked and the Taliban is retreating from Buner.  But this is far from over, and by the end we are likely to see renewed fighting between the two forces and a further push towards Islamabad.

Update III

Joshua Frost at has a great ‘sanity check’ post with interesting history and perspective, as well as a reading list for those interested in the history of the conflict.


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"Randy Waterhouse" is a pseudonym.