The Talibanisation of Pakistan does not necessarily need the Taliban to take over
The Pakistani Taliban are not going to take over the Pakistani government. That worry doesn’t keep me up at night. They are small, and operate in a rugged, remote area of the country. They can set off bombs and be a destabilizing force. But a few thousand tribesmen can’t take over a country of 165 million with a large urban middle class that has a highly organized and professional army. [Juan Cole]
Coming from a professor of history, no less, that is a shocking statement. A few thousand violent individuals can well take over a country if the general population is supine and the security apparatus sympathetic. So how many violent individuals did it take on October 12, 1999 when General Musharraf seized power? Next door in Iran, Wikipedia tells us, “the final collapse of the Pahlavi dynasty occurred shortly after on February 11 (1979) when Iran’s military declared itself “neutral” after guerrillas and rebel troops overwhelmed troops loyal to the Shah in armed street fighting.”
The political crisis triggered by the Supreme Court’s disqualification of the Sharif brothers does threaten to destabilise Pakistan further. Though unlikely at this point, it might even result in yet another military coup. This does not make the threat of a ‘Taliban takeover’ any less serious. That’s because ‘Taliban takeover’ does not necessarily mean a regime that places Baitullah Mehsud or a similar character in power. It could well place the army chief or even a politician at the helm, leave the civil bureaucracy largely intact, but replace the tattered 1973 constitution with the sharia. It won’t take long for the assorted jihadi groups in Pakistan’s cities and the countryside to start moral policing and dispense Taliban justice. The few thousand tribesmen are not alone—there are several tens of thousands of jihadis and jihadi sympathisers who can be mobilised for consolidating the revolution. Don’t forget their organisational capabilities were recognised to be superior to that of the Pakistani government in the aftermath of the earthquake in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in 2005.
To be sure, it is possible that developments in recent weeks have caused excessive panic in Washington. As Matthew Yglesias points out “Pakistan’s been a troubled place for a long time and Americans shouldn’t confuse a rapid increase in our level of interest in Pakistan’s troubles with a rapid escalation in the scale of the troubles.” It is possible that the military-jihadi complex wants to signal by actions what Musharraf did with words (“after me, the Taliban”). Even so, it is undeniable that Pakistan has never quite rolled back the first creeping then marching fundamentalism that has affected the state and society…since 1947. This at once creates militants with an agenda to overturn the political order, and also legitimises their cause in the minds of the people. A revolution is not only possible, it can be swift. Wikipedia also says that the Iranian revolution was “unique for the surprise it created throughout the world.” There’s no excuse to be surprised another time.