Pakistan, with approximately 159 million people, is one of the most populous countries in the Muslim world. It is also a country where radical Islamic ideas have attracted a broad following, and where Islamists already wield a significant amount of political influence. Could Pakistan succumb to an Islamic revolution? The likelihood may not be high -- at least over the near term. But this possibility ought to be considered since the consequences of it occurring would be enormous.
Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who as president and army chief effectively runs Pakistan as a strongman, has faced strong opposition to his leadership in recent years, underscored by several unsuccessful assassination attempts against him. In late December, for example, Islamist legislators complained bitterly about Musharraf's decision not to step down as army chief, as he previously agreed to do.
Islamist influence is strongest in North-West Frontier Province and in the tribal areas along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. Over the past year, the Pakistani military has struggled to dislodge Islamic militant groups from these tribal zones, including Waziristan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Still, some political observers wonder whether Islamists in Pakistan are sufficiently organized to mount the kind of mass protests that could place pressure on the country's military leaders.
At the same time, it should be noted that an Islamic orientation has developed within elements of the Pakistani armed forces and intelligence services. Thus, it is not at all clear that these elements could be relied upon to defend the Musharraf regime if widespread Islamic opposition to it emerged.
The potential replacement of the Musharraf regime by an Islamist-dominated government in Pakistan could cause enormous problems for the United States. Under a revolutionary scenario, not only would Islamabad cease to cooperate with the American military effort in Afghanistan, but it could easily supply Taliban forces with enough manpower and materiel to make this military effort far more difficult than it is now. A radical Islamic takeover in Pakistan could similarly invigorate the Uighur separatist movement in China's Xinjiang Province. Meanwhile, Pakistan's Sunni radicals have exhibited strong anti-Shi'a tendencies. Thus, an Islamic revolutionary regime in Islamabad could cause a spike in Pakistani-Iranian tension.
The enormous problems that Washington now faces in Afghanistan and Iraq could look small indeed compared to the problems the United States could face if Pakistan is embroiled in an Islamic revolution. Ousting a radical Islamic regime in Pakistan would likely prove far more difficult for the United States to accomplish than it was to topple authoritarian regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is because Pakistan not only has a much larger population and a much larger and more sophisticated military establishment, but also because it possesses nuclear weapons.With direct military intervention not likely to be an option, Washington would have to fall back on a strategy of containment in order to prevent Pakistan from Islamic radical ideas.
Most countries in the regionincluding India, China, Uzbekistan and Russiawould probably be willing partners of the United States in formulating a containment strategy. A radicalized Islamabad could also encourage Iran to probe the normalization of relations with the United States (just as the virulently anti-American regime in Beijing did in the early 1970s in reaction to the growing threat that China faced from the Soviet Union). Of course, even if Tehran expressed a desire to engage in detente, there is no guarantee that hardliners in the Bush administration would reciprocate. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Although the United States could count on having allies in an effort to contain a radicalized Pakistan, several of these potential allies are themselves susceptible to Sunni Islamic radicalism. Although India, for instance, is a democratic nation, that country's large Muslim minority (which is a majority in Kashmir) has felt discriminated against and disenfranchised. Communist authorities in Beijing rule China dictatorially, but its repression of the Muslim population in Xinjiang has been especially harsh. While Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov largely succeeded in crushing his domestic political opponents, he has been unable to contain underground Islamic radical activity. In addition, Russia's relations with its large Muslim minority are highly problematic.
Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University.
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