Why Pakistan's Decline Is Almost Inevitable

05/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Benazir Bhutto's niece, Fatima Bhutto, lays out the reasons for decline as succinctly as anyone I've read:

The Taliban and their ilk, on the other hand, are able to seat themselves in towns and villages across Pakistan without much difficulty largely because they do not come empty-handed. In a country that has a literacy rate of around 30 percent, the Islamists set up madrassas and educate local children for free. In districts where government hospitals are not fit for animals, they set up medical camps--in fact, they've been doing medical relief work since the 2005 earthquake hit Northern Pakistan. Where there is no electricity, because the local government officials have placed their friends and relatives in charge of local electrical plants, the Islamists bring generators. In short, they fill a vacuum that the state, through political negligence and gross graft, has created.

To combat the Taliban's incursions further into poverty-stricken parts of the country, Pakistan's government only has to do its job less leisurely. That's the frightening truth.

Napoleon once said that the moral is to the physical as ten is to one. My simple rule of thumb for determining who will win civil and guerilla wars is "who is the government?" Now if I were to ask 100 people who the government of northwest Pakistan is, 99 would probably say "the government of Pakistan".

No. Government is what government does. The organization which supplies security, social services and law is the government, and it doesn't matter who is recognized by foreign powers. This is a mistake which the West makes over and over and over again, most recently in Somalia when the US greenlighted and aided in the destruction of Somalia incipient government, the Islamic Courts Union, plunging the country back into even worse anarchy than before, and pretending that the foreign chosen "interim government", which had no popular support, was actually a government.

Now Napoleon didn't say the moral is to the physical as infinity to one. If you're badly enough outgunned and outnumbered, well, being the government may not be enough, especially if you've only been the government for a brief time.

This is why a lot of analysts believe that Pakistan can never "fall", because the Pakistani army is very powerful.

I am far less sanguine. The army has shown very little willingness or ability to fight the Pakistani Taliban. It is unclear to me that the Pakistani army is willing to fight the Taliban, at least all out and if ordered to do so that it would obey that order, either at the top level, or at the operational level. Which is to say, just because the "President" orders it to do something, doesn't mean it will, and even if the military took back over through another coup (quite likely) that officers and even line soldiers are willing to be used against the Taliban, when the Taliban is actually a more effective government than they one they ostensibly serve.

The legitimacy of a government comes from doing what a government does. The Pakistani "government" is less of a government to most of the country than the Pakistani Taliban. The danger is that it will continue to expand into places where the Islamabad government is not actually acting as a government, till it controls most of the countryside and some of the smaller cities. From there it will likely reach an accommodation with the army.

Although they aren't communists, this is classical Maoist style countryside to city guerrilla strategy. By the time the major cities fall, they will be all that is left, completely isolated from the rest of the country.

The Pakistani army is powerful, but it is only an army, not a government.

Government is as government does. If the current Pakistani government wants to stay in charge, Fatima is right, it needs to do its job. If it doesn't, those who are willing to do the job will take over.


1. Fatima does have an axe to grind with the other faction of her family, but that doesn't make her statements inaccurate.

2. Certainly Juan Cole is correct that the government is not likely to fall in the next 6 months to a year. In fact it might never fall, per se. Despite the fact that Hezbollah is more powerful than the Lebanese central government, that government still exists.