Given the steady flow of media reports, you could be forgiven for thinking that Pakistan is now a latter-day Beirut writ large, a fast-failing state of endemic anarchy that more closely resembles Iraq or Afghanistan than its prosperous and relatively tranquil eastern neighbour, India.
Barely a day passes without news of another suicide bombing, kidnapping or assassination. In recent years, militant Islamists – the "Pakistani Taliban" – have overrun whole areas of the North West Frontier. Places once considered an unspoilt paradise for Western tourists are now too dangerous even for Pakistanis to travel. This year, Islamic radicals even moved into central Islamabad and tried to impose their extremist values. This led to the brutal and bloody siege of the Red Mosque where more than 100 people died as security forces stormed the site. Foreign capital is taking flight and Islamabad is becoming ever more dependent on American aid to keep financially afloat.
For British and American chiefs in the "war on terror", the prospect of watching Pakistan disintegrate is particularly alarming. This is a country awash with arms and full of graduates from religious schools, mainly Saudi-funded, where a virulent message of anti-Western hatred is sometimes taught. These militants are now pouring from their Pakistani bases, mainly around the city of Quetta, to wage a fanatical holy war against Nato troops in Afghanistan.
Over the past six years, Taliban leaders and al-Qa'ida militants are also known to have found sanctuary in Pakistan's big cities and on its wild border areas with Afghanistan; without Islamabad's co-operation they are not only likely to remain at large but could start to stir trouble. For the watching world as well as for ordinary Pakistanis, a great deal depends upon the new political era that looks set to dawn. For, barring dramatic development such as the imposition of martial law or some other desperate delaying tactic, the writing certainly seems to be on the wall for President Pervez Musharraf. Almost exactly eight years after his military coup against the then premier Nawaz Sharif, Musharraf has started to look vulnerable and isolated.
Because Pakistan's president is chosen by the national parliament and provincial assemblies, Musharraf is dependent on the outcome of elections due by the end of October. Whatever their outcome, he might be sidelined in one of two ways.
He could be effectively neutered if, as seems likely, he does a deal with the former premier Benazir Bhutto in which Bhutto, restored as Prime Minister, and her parliamentary supporters would allow Musharraf to remain as President. This could only happen if Musharraf casts aside his military uniform and renounces his joint status as army chief which, says the Supreme Court, is constitutionally incompatible with his presidency.
But such a dramatic step would disassociate him from his natural bedrock of support – the army – which wields huge political and economic power in Pakistan and which brought him to power back in October 1999. Bhutto would also make her support dependent on far-reaching constitutional amendments to give parliament more power at the presidency's expense.
The other scenario is that Musharraf's old adversary, Sharif, contests and wins the elections. After eight years of exile he has just won the right to return and has vowed to galvanise Musharraf's many enemies and lead them to political victory.
Strategists in Washington and London are closely watching Pakistan's political drama unfold and trying to assess what impact it could have for the "war on terror". But would either of these two outcomes make matters any better for them? Over the past few years, these warriors on terror have hoped for an alliance between Bhutto and Musharraf on the grounds that while the president is a staunch ally of the West he also needs both the legitimacy that a democratic mandate can bestow and more support from the centre ground against the radicals. Washington also knows that the Oxford-educated Bhutto has strong pro-Western sympathies.
Unfortunately, such hopes for a post-Musharraf era are likely to be quickly dashed. In the short term, political disputes in Islamabad are likely to be seized on by extremists as a golden opportunity to cause maximum disruption. Whether in the deserts of Baluchistan, where tribal insurgents have been fighting security forces, or in the mountains and the big cities, where al-Qa'ida is at work, deadly new waves of violence could erupt.
More importantly, the outcome of the upcoming elections will not alter the power of the one institution that really pulls the strings in Pakistan – the army. Throughout its 60-year history, Pakistan has rested on bayonets and the military chiefs have pursued their own interests.
During their earlier premierships, Bhutto and Sharif knew little or nothing about the army's support for the Taliban or its programme to build a nuclear bomb and the shadow of the military would always hang overany civilian administration. Musharraf himself toppled Sharif with the same ruthlessness that General Zia ousted, and then hanged, Benazir's own father, Ali Bhutto, in 1977.
If the generals feel that Pakistan's strategic interests might in future be sidelined by civilian leaders they deem too pro-Western, then they might be tempted to give even more support to the radical Islamists who have long been their strategic allies. Since 2002, elements in the military appear to have been encouraging these militants to cross into Afghanistan and fight allied troops to carve a sphere of influence in a land that they claim offers them "strategic depth" against a neighbour, India, with a vast and rapidly growing might.
Britain and the US's best chance of curtailing covert Pakistani support for militant Islam, and the insurgency against British troops in Afghanistan, may be to allay deep-rooted Pakistani insecurities and fears of encirclement and Indian attack. They could perhaps do this by building political and commercial links between the two neighbours. Despite a thaw in relations, these remain tenuous.
Washington may applaud greater democracy in Pakistan but we must remember that, from our own point of view, the demise of its military dictator could easily make things worse, not better.
Roger Howard reported on Pakistan and Afghanistan through the 1990s, and wrote 'What's wrong with liberal interventionism'Reuse content