WASHINGTON — A growing number of U.S. intelligence, defense and diplomatic officials have concluded that there's little hope of preventing nuclear-armed Pakistan from disintegrating into fiefdoms controlled by Islamist warlords and terrorists, posing a greater threat to the U.S. than Afghanistan's terrorist haven did before 9/11.
"It's a disaster in the making on the scale of the Iranian revolution," said a U.S. intelligence official with long experience in Pakistan who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.
Pakistan's fragmentation into warlord-run fiefdoms that host al Qaida and other terrorist groups would have grave implications for the security of its nuclear arsenal; for the U.S.-led effort to pacify Afghanistan; and for the security of India, the nearby oil-rich Persian Gulf and Central Asia, the U.S. and its allies.
"Pakistan has 173 million people and 100 nuclear weapons, an army which is bigger than the American army, and the headquarters of al Qaida sitting in two-thirds of the country which the government does not control," said David Kilcullen, a retired Australian army officer, a former State Department adviser and a counterinsurgency consultant to the Obama administration.
"Pakistan isn't Afghanistan, a backward, isolated, landlocked place that outsiders get interested in about once a century," agreed the U.S. intelligence official. "It's a developed state . . . (with) a major Indian Ocean port and ties to the outside world, especially the (Persian) Gulf, that Afghanistan and the Taliban never had."
"The implications of this are disastrous for the U.S.," he added. "The supply lines (from Karachi to U.S. bases) in Kandahar and Kabul from the south and east will be cut, or at least they'll be less secure, and probably sooner rather than later, and that will jeopardize the mission in Afghanistan, especially now that it's getting bigger."
The experts McClatchy interviewed said their views aren't a worst case scenario but a realistic expectation based on the militants' gains and the failure of Pakistan's civilian and military leadership to respond.
"The place is beyond redemption," said a Pentagon adviser who asked not to be further identified so he could speak freely. "I don't see any plausible scenario under which the present government or its most likely successor will mobilize the economic, political and security resources to push back this rising tide of violence.
"I think Pakistan is moving toward a situation where the extremists control virtually all of the countryside and the government controls only the urban centers," he continued. "If you look out 10 years, I think the government will be overrun by Islamic militants."
That pessimistic view of Pakistan's future has been bolstered by Islamabad's surrender this week for the first time of areas outside the frontier tribal region to Pakistan's Taliban movement and by a growing militant infiltration of Karachi, the nation's financial center, and the industrial and political heartland province of Punjab, in part to evade U.S. drone strikes in the tribal belt.
Civilian deaths in the drone attacks, the eight-year-old U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and U.S. support for Pakistan's former military dictatorship also have sown widespread ambivalence about the threat the insurgency poses and revulsion at fighting fellow Muslims.
"The government has to ratchet up the urgency and ratchet up the commitment of resources. This is a serious moment for Pakistan," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, on April 14 in Islamabad. "The federal government has got to . . . define this problem as Pakistan's."
Many Pakistanis, however, dismiss such warnings as inflated. They think that the militants are open to dialogue and political accommodation to end the unrest, which many trace to the former military regime's cooperation with the U.S. after 9/11.
Ahsan Iqbal, a top aide to opposition leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, said the insurgency can be quelled if the government rebuilds the judicial system, improves law enforcement, compensates guerrillas driven to fight by relatives' deaths in security force operations and implements democratic reforms.
"It will require time," Iqbal told McClatchy reporters and editors this week. "We need a very strong resolve and internal unity."
Many U.S. officials, though, regard the civilian government of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari as unpopular, dysfunctional and mired in infighting. It's been unable to agree on an effective counterinsurgency strategy or to address the ills that are feeding the unrest. These include ethnic and sectarian hatreds, ineffective police, broken courts, widespread corruption, endemic poverty and a deepening financial crisis, they said.
Pakistan's army, meanwhile, is hobbled by a lack of direction from the country's civilian leaders, disparaged for its repeated coups and shaken by repeated defeats by the militants. It remains fixated on India to ensure high budgets and cohesion among troops of divergent ethnic and sectarian allegiances, U.S. officials and experts said.
Many officers and politicians also oppose fighting the Islamist groups that Pakistan nurtured to fight proxy wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir, and because they think the U.S. is secretly conspiring with India to destabilize their country.
Alarm rose in Washington this week after the parliament and Zardari agreed to impose Islamic law in the Swat district, where extremists have repelled several army offensives; closed girls' schools; and beheaded, hanged and lashed opponents and alleged criminals.
The government's capitulation handed the militants their first refuge outside the remote tribal area bordering Afghanistan, and less than 100 miles north of Islamabad. Taliban fighters also advanced virtually unopposed from Swat into the Buner district, 60 miles north of Islamabad.
Buner is close to a key hydroelectric dam and to the highways that link Pakistan to China, and Islamabad to Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province, much of which is already under Taliban sway.
Many U.S. officials and other experts expect the militants to continue advancing.
The Taliban "have now become a self-sustaining force," author Ahmed Rashid, an expert on the insurgency, told a conference in Washington on Wednesday. "They have an agenda for Pakistan, and that agenda is no less than to topple the government of Pakistan and 'Talibanizing' the entire country."
Iqbal, the adviser to Sharif, disagreed. While militants will overrun small pockets, most Pakistanis embrace democracy and will resist living under the Taliban's harsh interpretation of Islam, he said.
"The psychology, the temperament, the mood of the Pakistani nation does not subscribe to these extremist views," Iqbal said.
The U.S. intelligence official, however, said that Pakistan's elite, dominated since the country's independence in 1947 by politicians, bureaucrats and military officers from Punjab, have failed to recognize the seriousness of the situation.
"The Punjabi elite has already lost control of Pakistan, but neither they nor the Obama administration realize that," the official said. "Pakistan will be an Islamist state — or maybe a collection of four Islamic states, probably within a few years. There's no civilian leadership in Islamabad that can stop this, and so far, there hasn't been any that's been willing to try."
Several U.S. officials said that the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy that President Barack Obama unveiled last month is being called into question by the accelerating rate at which the insurgency in Pakistan is expanding.
The plan hinges on the Pakistani army's willingness to put aside its obsession with Hindu-dominated India and focus on fighting the Islamist insurgency. It also presupposes, despite doubts held by some U.S. officials, that sympathetic Pakistani military and intelligence officers will sever their links with militant groups.
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