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Many What-ifs In Pakistan

Gautam Adhikari

30 October 2009


WASHINGTON: What if Pakistan breaks up? It's a question a friend asked recently. He is a former diplomat, a man of wide international experience who holds reasoned opinions. "Why should we Indians be worked up? If it breaks up, let it go," he said.


We had a cracking debate about it that evening. I wondered whether strategy shops in India, in government and out, had drawn up alternative scenarios of the consequences of such a calamity. "There's no need," he said. "It won't be any different from what we have to face today. If anything, it will be a little easier."


The conversation came back to me when an Islamabad-datelined news item in this newspaper last week said that several Pakistanis had left or were planning to leave their homeland, so dangerous and exasperating life had become there. That doesn't mean that Pakistan will soon be drained of people. It just means some of those who can, mostly from the middle and upper classes will leave; some, alas, will be the ones with the best minds. The super rich already have a foot in other countries, with villas and estates to care for. Everyone else - the vast majority - will have no option but to stay back. Or, and this is the scary part, will want to run for their lives, helter-skelter, if Pakistan indeed begins to unravel. But where will they go for refuge?


The problem is that if its people start to desert Pakistan, they won't necessarily go in any predictable, orderly manner. There won't be a last person to leave who will turn the lights out and Pakistan will become a dark spot on the map. 'Break-up' is a convenient term in a speculative chat. No one knows exactly how it might happen.

What might a disintegrated Pakistan look like? My friend thinks Balochistan is the province most likely to break away; the north-west frontier area is formally inside Pakistan's borders but is more or less autonomous. The tribes and terrorists there don't care for national borders anyway. So, Pakistan will become Punjab and Sindh, which it has in fact been all these years. How would that make a difference to India?


Well, that's one scenario. But its outcome is not as neat as it might seem. The Pakistani military is unlikely to just let Balochistan go, it will fight tooth and nail to keep the province within Pakistan. As it fights insurgents in Balochistan, its eyes will have to move away from the Taliban, who just might decide to take bold risks.

Here's another scenario: The army, under American pressure, continues to fight the Taliban within Pakistan and the Taliban, with the help of other radical groups spawned and nurtured by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) wing, continues to chip away at the nation's institutional edifice as well as citizens' endurance with an unending series of terrorist attacks in the cities, as it is currently doing. Before long, elements within the army and the ISI, who never wanted to fight their brethren and who hate the Americans, start to break away from the military to go over to the other side. When such a trickle becomes a steady stream, if not a flood, then what?


In other words, if the Taliban, with support from a section of the army, some day takes over in Islamabad, do we say, "Tsk, tsk", and carry on as if nothing happened? Wouldn't Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat have to prepare refugee camps? And, sorry to raise the issue, but won't we have to wonder who controls the nuclear buttons across the border? A fire next door, unfortunately, can singe the neighbourhood.

An unlikely scenario, many might say. But, improbable? Surely not. Remember, ever since the late General Zia-ul Haq began Islamising the military, devout bearded men have existed in good numbers within the rank and file as well as the officers' corps of the Pakistani army and the ISI. Some are already believed to be working with the Taliban and other terrorist groups. If and when the American pressure eases, and if the Pakistani army returns to its old ways, the Taliban's day will dawn once again.


Which brings up a third scenario: A year down the road, US president Barack Obama capitulates to mounting domestic pressure, much of it from his own party, and decides to wind down the American presence in Afghanistan. The ISI tells the Taliban to wait quietly till the infidels have gone. And then move in. Bingo! We can all move back to September 10, 2001. The Taliban, with guidance from the Pakistani forces who are perpetually seeking strategic depth against India, gains effective control over Afghanistan. The Lashkar-e-whatevers and the al-Qaeda are delighted. The Pakistani army is happy that the security of the western flank is outsourced once again to proxies while it resumes directing its low-intensity conflict against India.

Unlikely? Perhaps. Improbable? No. Many Americans are busy comparing their involvement in Afghanistan to Vietnam and asking whether it is worth any more time and effort. There are, however, others who are calling such comparisons nonsensical, since the two situations are entirely different, and are insisting that the stability of both Afghanistan and Pakistan is vital for the world to gain a respite from terrorism. New Delhi can only hope that the latter group wins the argument.

The writer is a former executive editor of this paper.

Source: The Times of India, New Delhi

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