01/19/2011 06:23 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Nick Mills Associate professor of Journalism, Boston University

It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future. Yogi Berra is said to have said that, but he also is said to have said, "I didn't say the things I said." That said, I'm going to make a prediction: things will get worse in Pakistan this year.

A few days ago Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Foreign Press Center in Washington that Pakistan is the "epicenter" of global terrorism. He also remarked that the Pakistani military "knows what it has to do" to change that status. Note that he did not mention the civilian government of Pakistan, which is widely viewed as inept, corrupt and ineffectual. Also note that the Pakistani military is largely responsible for the rise of militant Islam in Pakistan and elsewhere.

General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq seized power in a coup in 1977, overthrowing the government of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto after months of civil unrest. The unrest in those times, thirty years after the partition of India and the founding of Pakistan, was political, not religious. Since the days of the country's founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, until the Zia era, Pakistan had been a Muslim country but not an Islamic country. It is worth noting Jinnah's words about the nature of his new nation:

Now, if we want to make this great State of Pakistan happy and prosperous, we should wholly and solely concentrate on the well-being of the people, and especially of the masses and the poor. If you will work in co-operation, forgetting the past, burying the hatchet, you are bound to succeed. If you change your past and work together in a spirit that everyone of you, no matter to what community he belongs, no matter what relations he had with you in the past, no matter what is his colour, caste or creed, is first, second and last a citizen of this State with equal rights, privileges, and obligations, there will be no end to the progress you will make.

Bhutto's government, like most of the civilian governments Pakistanis have suffered under, was not only corrupt but politically repressive; forget Jinnah's words about working in cooperation. The frustrations of the opposition boiled over in parliament and on the streets. Zia ousted Bhutto, declared martial law, cracked heads and calmed things down. He also steered the Pakistani ship of state sharply to the religious right, encouraging the rise of militant Islam. When the U.S.S.R. invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Zia not only took in more than 2 million Afghan refugees, he encouraged, trained and financed the mujaheddin, the so-called holy warriors who fought against the Soviet occupation much as the Taliban are fighting against the U.S. occupation today. Pakistan's Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, the notorious I.S.I., was given the major role in controlling the mujaheddin by supplying the various Afghan resistance groups with money and weapons -- or not. The groups that got the most money and the most weapons were the most virulently anti-West and most radically Islamist. The moderates, including the group to which Hamid Karzai and his father belonged, received far less. In its role as paymaster and armorer to the Afghan resistance, the I.S.I. also decided which groups got the bulk of the "clandestine" U.S. aid, which of necessity had to come through Pakistan. Again, the radicals, such as the monstrous Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, got the lion's share. Later, in the 1990s after the mujaheddin government failed miserably, the I.S.I. played a new card: the Taliban.

A few days before Adm. Mullen made his "epicenter of global terrorism" remarks, the governor of Pakistan's Punjab province was shot dead by one of his bodyguards. The assassination brought a wave of demonstrations protesting the impotence of the government in combating the extremists, but the arraignment of the assassin was greeted by cheering supporters strewing rose petals in his path. The bodyguard said he shot Gov. Salman Taseer because of the governor's opposition to Pakistan's blasphemy law, which carries the death penalty for "insulting Islam." The law is generally used to persecute Pakistani Christians such as Asia Bibi, a poor agricultural worker who was sentenced to die for an alleged insult to the prophet Mohammed. Taseer was pushing for a presidential pardon for Bibi and modifications to the blasphemy law.

These are not good omens. Pakistan is a divided nation. The divide this time, unlike when the government of Bhutto (the father) was overthrown by Zia but very much like when Bhutto's daughter, Benazir, was assassinated, is religious. It separates the majority of Pakistanis, who would like to see economic and social progress and secular governance, from the Islamists who would roll back the calendar a few centuries and govern by a bizarre interpretation of the Koran. The beast is of Pakistan's own devising. What the two sides have in common is antipathy for the U.S. The moderates hate the U.S. for bankrolling and otherwise enabling successive bad governments; the extremists hate the U.S. for being meddling infidels who occupy Muslim lands.

Adm. Mullen may be right in saying that the Pakistani military "knows what it has to do" to rout the Taliban and al Qaeda from their Pakistani sanctuaries, but does the U.S. military know what it has to do? The answer is increasingly, painfully and expensively apparent.

When you think about it, making predictions about Pakistan is not that tough -- even predictions about the future.