Last November, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., brought together more than two dozen former high-level United States government officials to take part in a half-day exercise on the future of Pakistan. In the room were former assistant secretaries of state and career ambassadors, as well as former senior officials from the Pentagon, the CIA, the Treasury, and USAID; it was a veritable who’s who of Washington’s Pakistan experts. The sponsors presented an escalating series of fictional crises—growing violence along the Pakistani-Afghan border, mass protests against the government by radical Islamists, the arrest of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto shortly after her return from exile—and asked participants how they would respond to rising chaos in the nuclear-armed state.
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The exercise culminated with this scenario: In the aftermath of Pakistan’s national elections in late 2007, Taliban forces attempt to assassinate Afghan President Hamid Karzai, then retreat to a hideout in western Pakistan. U.S. forces pursue them, and an American soldier is taken captive in South Waziristan, a tribal region in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province. As the kidnappers post video images of the hostage on the Internet, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf orders his army to attack the Taliban compound. The assault frees the American soldier, but leaves hundreds of militants, Pakistani troops, and civilians dead or wounded. Antigovernment riots spread across the country, peaking in a confrontation between civilians and Pakistani forces in Lahore that leaves a dozen people dead. That evening, in what looks like a coup attempt, troops surround the houses of both Musharraf and Shaukat Aziz, the prime minister. Hours later, the U.S. ambassador receives a call from a previously unknown Pakistani two-star general, “raising serious concerns,” according to the scenario playbook, “over whether the chain of command in Pakistan has remained intact.”