The threat of an outright Islamist revolution—by gun or ballot—is low today, and so too is the threat that nuclear weapons could fall into the wrong hands. The army is not dominated by jihadists, and its controls on its missiles are strong. Yet the course of Pakistani politics remains vital to the United States. Military rule in Pakistan may have been helpful to U.S. interests for a time, but it isn’t any longer. The benefits have diminished, while the corrosive effects on society have grown—and continue to grow.
The military’s younger generation has exhibited some of the same unsavory tendencies as Musharraf: an inclination toward authoritarianism, contempt for civilians, indulgence of military corruption, and an unequivocal belief in the military as the country’s savior. It also appears more sympathetic to Islamist causes and more hostile to India than is Musharraf. Pakistani officers in their 30s do not believe that the U.S. wants a long-lasting relationship with Pakistan; they have little camaraderie with U.S. soldiers, and they feel little empathy for U.S. political or diplomatic positions.
And while the military aims to do the opposite, it is slowly destabilizing Pakistan. Eight years of usurpation of power by Musharraf have weakened secular parties, corrupted the judiciary, and implanted army men in every facet of civilian life. Pakistan’s population is now doubling every 38 years, creating severe social pressures. If the political process remains stunted, the Islamists may continue to gather strength until the country reaches a tipping point. “We are not going to collapse if Musharraf goes tomorrow; Pakistan will go on, insha’allah,” I was told by Mohammed Enver Baig, a senator with the Pakistan People’s Party. “But the 2007 elections could be a turning point for all of us. If the elections are not fair, don’t be surprised if next time—after five years—you come and see me, I might have a long beard myself.”
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Ross Douthat is a contributing editor at The Atlantic.