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December 27, 2007

The Nuclear Scenario in Pakistan
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Andrew Sullivan writes:

If Islamists within the military or ISI did this, then we have the possibility that this is the beginning of something more ominous than the surface event. The collapse of Pakistan into a Jihadist nuclear power is the great nightmare.

Well, yes it might be. But the chances of the 'nuclear scenario' actually happening is so slim that treating it as the overriding policy question is, at best, a diversion and distraction from the real risks Pakistan faces. How exactly did this become the conventional wisdom? On one hand, you have Al-Qaeda and other associated terrorist groups. Al-Qaeda - I hope I am stating the obvious - is not going to take over the Pakistani government anytime soon. Extremist groups have the capability to terrorize the population, assassinate leaders, and destablize the country, but there are few indications that they have made enough inroads into the military or ISI to threaten an actual internal coup.

The other possibility is that the various Islamist parties might somehow come to power through free elections. Maybe this is what people are really referring to when they talk about an "Islamist takeover," a term which has long been a staple of Middle East-related fearmongering, and one that has been employed to great effect by the Muslim world's predominantly secular (and often brutal) dictators, including many of our allies. Well, the chances of this scenario occurring are even slimmer. Islamist parties in Pakistan have not made much an effort to moderate (in contrast to their Arab and Turkish counterparts), and they are, in fact, a frightening bunch. However, they do not command significant support in a country dominated by well-established secular parties. Their peak electoral support is around 15%, give-or-take. In other words, not much of a threat.

With all that said, we are talking about the Muslim world, an area of the world that tends to surprise when surprises are least expected and not particularly welcome. So I could be wrong. But the point remains that we shouldn't overexaggerate the threat of nuclear oblivion ushered in by Pakistan's Islamic extremists. And then there's the other question of why Islamic extremists have been able to wreak so much havoc in the first place. Didn't Mush promise us he would defeat the extremists or something? Oh, wait. Every dictator in the Muslim world promises us that. And, every time, we end up dissapointed.


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There are a number of worrisome nuclear scenarios to consider that fall well short of an actual coup by Islamist forces: corruption, black market networks in nuclear materials, different kinds of security breakdowns, blackmail, or various kinds of provocations that could lead to a nuclear exchange in South Asia. These are all important things to worry about. Other than these sorts of things, what are the "real risks" you are worried about?

Your post discusses "on the one hand" Al Qaeda not being able to "take over the Pakistani government anytime soon" and "the other possibility" of Islamist parties rising to power democratically. Thus, it doesn't seem to actually engage Sullivan's concern: a coup by Islamists embedded within the Pakistani military -- ones not there because of "inroads by extremists" in some kind of infiltration/collaboration way, but just ones who sympathize with the Islamist analyses and grievances. You may have a good argument why that's unlikely, but you haven't made it here yet.

E.g., I think it would be hard to know precisely what ISI people are doing and thinking, because their whole deal is to keep their doings and thoughts secret. But judging by the Pakistan military and intelligence people's tight relations with the Taliban (e.g. a lot of people were evacuated out of Kunduz to Pakistan back in 2002) Sullivan's concerns doesn't seem too far-fetched. AQ/Taliban fellow travellers, not necessarily AQ/Taliban per se.

My mistake: the evacuation was in Nov. 2001. Northern Alliance soldiers said today that Pakistani airplanes had once again flown into the encircled city of Kunduz to evacuate Pakistanis who have been fighting alongside Afghan Taliban forces trapped there. (11/24/07)

"How exactly did this become the conventional wisdom?"

Quite simple, Shadi:

Fear Sells.


The loss of Benazir Bhutto is significant. No longer can the U.S. afford to implement insolent policy towards Pakistan’s tumultuous government. No longer can Talibinization continue unhindered, with tacit disapproval. No longer can a regime of balls and bronze oppress the liberty of a people who have sounded a barbaric yawp for democracy, with every stone thrown, and madrassah erected. Obama ’08 Signed: Ethan R. L. (A young chap with much to learn)

I don't see how any policy prescriptions that don't start from the fact that Pakistan is an unstable, nuclear-armed country, with a history of corrupt black-market trade in nuclear technology, can meet the responsibility test. Shadi seems to regard the whole nuclear weapons thing as a big annoyance that might stand in the way of his democracy agenda.

is it a coincidence that Muslim dictatorships (most of whom are American allies) tend to be unstable?

In backing the current Pakistani government, the U.S. seems to be making the same mistakes as it with siding with Chang Kai Shek in China,Diem in Vietnam, and finally with the Shah in Iran. There is nothing that the American government can do to resolve an internal Pakistani affair, and as Hillary Mann Leverett explained, on the Keith Obermann show, the Americans must work with regional actors including Iran to restrain a potential Pakistani civil war.

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