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Could Pakistan, one of the scariest places on Earth, get even scarier?

Could Pakistan, one of the scariest places on Earth, get even scarier? Could it become the world’s first nuclear-armed jihadist state?

John R. Schmidt
John R. Schmidt

That unsettling question, which poses a frightening scenario and is part of a policy-making puzzle that confronts both the U.S. and Pakistan, is being raised by John R. Schmidt, a 30-year veteran of the U.S Foreign Service and the author of a book published last month, “The Unraveling: Pakistan in the Age of Jihad.”

Schmidt, who now teaches at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, was in the Twin Cities Thursday for a speaking engagement.

Book details growth of Islamic extremists there
Joanne Myers, director of public affairs programs for the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, calls his book one of very few that describes well how Islamic extremists got established and grew in Pakistan and how they are destabilizing the country. Schmidt appeared at a Sept. 22 Carnegie forum.

Originally from Wisconsin, Schmidt holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and a master’s degree in national security from the National War College in Washington, D.C. He was a political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad for three years.

In 1998, four days after he arrived in Pakistan, Al Qaeda operatives blew up two U.S. embassies in East Africa. His wife and two small children had 36 hours to pack up and fly back to Washington, where they remained for six months before returning to Islamabad. The embassy temporarily cut its staff from about 200 workers to about 50. Schmidt took a different route to work every day to minimize the danger that he would be attacked or kidnapped.

“I was devastated emotionally and fearful for my life,” he said in an interview Thursday.

Pakistan has had a rocky ride ever since it gained independence from the British Empire in 1947, with a particularly long slide setting in since Al Qaeda’s Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York City and the Pentagon. The attacks triggered U.S. military action in Afghanistan, which led terrorists to seek safety in the mountainous regions of Pakistan. In 2002, Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal’s South Asia correspondent, was kidnapped in Karachi and then killed in a horrific act of terrorism.

Last May, U.S. Navy Seals found and killed al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden. It turned out that he had been hiding out at a compound in Abbottabad, less than a mile from the military academy that serves as Pakistan’s West Point. The world was left to wonder whether Pakistan’s leaders, supposedly allies of the U.S. in its battle against al-Qaida, were giving bin Laden a safe haven.

Economically, Pakistan’s gross domestic product per capita half a century ago was roughly equal to that of South Korea; today, it’s less than a tenth of that. Only 57 percent of Pakistanis can read or write. Just 2 percent of its people pay income taxes. Only 2 percent of its gross national product goes for education — the lowest in a region that includes poverty-stricken Bangladesh and Nepal, according to Schmidt.

Two groups run the country. One is the army, widely viewed as a meritocracy. The other is its civilian political class, dominated by wealthy landlords and industrialists who use political patronage to steer the country’s resources to themselves.

Yet despite these many travails, Pakistan has managed to join the elite club of nations possessing nuclear weapons.

Schmidt blames country’s rulers
Schmidt worries about the rise of radical mosques and madrassas in Pakistan. He pins the blame largely on the country’s rulers, who believed they could use Islamic radicals to strengthen Pakistan’s position in its enduring face-off against India.

Initially, he said, the strategy worked, but after the 9/11 attacks, Pakistani rulers’ support for the U.S. led many of their jihadist allies to turn against them. Today, Pakistan’s rulers fear the consequences of going after the jihadists and still hope they can be used to advance the interests of the state.

Meanwhile, Pakistan seeks to curb India’s growing influence in Afghanistan by backing the Taliban there, which puts Pakistan at odds with the U.S.

What about the chilling thought that Islamic extremists could some day gain control of the Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, or put nuclear weapons in to the hands of rogue states or terrorists beyond Pakistan? Schmidt says the army regards these weapons as the nation’s crown jewels, has heavily secured them and that as of now, Pakistan’s jihadists don’t have the power to take over the government.

Could the army collapse? He mentioned three ways: war with the U.S., a growing radical underclass in the urban areas, or continued growth of Islamic extremism. But Schmidt views a collapse as unlikely. “It’s a pretty solid organization” that serves as a force for stability to help Pakistan keep on “muddling through,” a condition that the Pakistanis have grown accustomed to.

Yet Pakistan’s relations with the U.S. continue to deteriorate. Its tensions with India, which were easing four years ago, have raged anew since late in 2008 when the Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani-based jihadist group, unleashed attacks that killed more than 160 people in the heart of Mumbai.

Many Pakistanis believe the U.S. policies tilt toward India, which is more democratic than Pakistan and has deep business ties with the U.S, unlike Pakistan. And Pakistan’s Islamic extremism is unlikely to fade until that happens around the world.

Muddling through, it seems, is a process riddled with fear and uncertainty.

Dave Beal can be reached at dandcbeal[at]

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Raj Maddali on 10/14/2011 - 07:49 pm.

    The author basically repeats the popular narrative on Pakistan. Oh its because of their radical elements that Pakistan is going down the tubes.

    What he glosses over is the decade long American coddling of dictator Zia Ul Haq that set forth Pakistan on this course to Islamization.

    He also does not state why Pakistan is hedging its bets by relying on the Taliban. Cause the last time around America basically dumped Pakistan after using them and leaving their country in shambles.

    This is a completely incorrect analysis.

  2. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 10/15/2011 - 10:46 am.

    “If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass or leaves, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own.”

    Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, 1965 (

  3. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/17/2011 - 06:46 am.

    //The problem with Pakistan has been festering for a long time. Pakistan’s ruling elite came to see itself as heirs to the Mughals of yesteryear’s. It saw itself reclaiming the empire after the British left. That is why it preached, “Haske liya Pakistan, ladke lenge Hindustan.” (We have effortlessly won Pakistan, we shall fight to acquire Hindustan). That is why it dreams of flying the Pakistan flag atop the Red Fort. And that is why it must incessantly shout, “Kashmir Banega Pakistan” (Kashmir shall merge into Pakistan) in the cantonments of Pindi, Lahore and Sialkot.

    While such irredentist dreams help Pakistan’s ruling elite to maintain its grip on power and remain as the ultimate arbiter of who gets to steal in Pakistan and how much, it inevitably acts to the detriment of the ordinary citizens of Pakistan. There is absolutely nothing in the history of Pakistan Army’s history even to suspect that it cares even an iota more for democracy of people in Kashmir or Afghanistan than it cares for democracy for the people inside Pakistan.

    As long as Pakistan’s ruling elite feel that it is strong enough to alter borders with military might, it will try to inflict Kargils after Kargils on India and seek subjugation of Afghanistan in the bargain. Peace will not be in the horizon till Pakistan’s ruling elite has a change of heart (most unlikely) or till the ordinary voters of Pakistan finally manage to get the government they want.

    Pakistan’s military is like the tiger that has tasted human blood. It has come to enjoy absolute and unaccounted power and all the perks and privileges that come with it. A disproportionate share of the national revenue has been ending up in its pocket. And a key to this state of affairs is its ability to make itself seem indispensable. Pakistan military’s continuing faith in the British propounded “martial races theory” is obviously self-serving. This goes a long way toward maintaining its hold over “non-martial races” of Pakistan even as it peddles the dream of holding sway over all “non-martial races” of the subcontinent.

    Pakistan’s real war is not with India or with Afghanistan but with itself – how to prevent the repeated sabotaging of democracy at the hands of its self- appointed arbiters of national destiny. Pakistan’s military has no reason to welcome peace. Lack of peace is its passport to maintaining its unbridled power, perks and privileges. It is not an accident of history that Musharraf chose to sharpen his knife for a foray into Kargil even as Vajpayee and Sharif were proclaiming peace in front of the Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore. A break out of peace cannot be anything but a disaster for the Pakistan military. It is futile to hope for meaningful peace talks till Pakistan’s military gets brought under the oversight of elected civilian leaders who understand the need to get reelected to remain in power.

    Pakistan’s military and the ISI were never representative of the hopes and aspirations of ordinary Pakistanis. It is very illuminating to keep in mind the geographical concentration of military personnel – eighty percent of officers, rank and file, come from only five districts: Attock, Rawalpindi, Chakwal, Jhelum and Gujrat in Punjab; and three districts of NWFP: Mardan, Peshawar and Kohat – ill gotten
    wealth of the military funnels prosperity to a very narrow segment in the country (professionally & geographically). The so-called “recruitment area” (term inherited via the courtesy of British
    colonial rulers) is essentially the area between the Indus and the Jhelum.

    It is this Mal-distribution of the military (kept alive artificially by the British propounded “martial races theory”) that has made it easier for the military’s top brass to manipulate the lower ranking
    soldiers into upholding the corporate interests of Pakistan’s military.//

  4. Submitted by Eman Maan on 03/01/2013 - 01:10 pm.

    So very wrong.What this man

    So very wrong.
    What this man probably knows but will not say is that he is from America. America was supposedly our friend but when we most needed help it turned its back on us. America was also the one who trained these Taliban undercover and when the truth was about to be uncovered they turned around and pointed their fingers at us while we were still in our early ages of developing. This greatly affected us.
    What Pakistan needs is a little support and a decent government and then I am sure Pakistan will show its true colors. So my friends give Pakistan the support it needs!

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