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Editorial: The West must plan for an arc of uncertainty

The collapse of the state in a nuclear Pakistan is a prospect that must be addressed

With its recent history of coups, assassinations and popular protest, Pakistan can hardly be described as a stable country. Yet the stand-off that has developed in recent days between the Supreme Court, which is demanding the arrest of the Prime Minister, and the government, which has formally challenged that order, raises the prospect of a new and alarming crisis. Angry crowds in the streets, shouting slogans that echo those of the Arab Spring, add another, quite unpredictable, dimension. 

But it is not just on this north-eastern edge of the Muslim world that unanticipated reverberations of the Arab Spring are now making themselves felt. Swing south and west, to Mali, and the outer western edge is also in turmoil. Within days of President Hollande’s decision to intervene there, French troops were reported to be fighting street by street to repel the Islamist forces’ advance. This rebellion can be traced directly to the return of Tuareg warriors from neighbouring Libya after the fall of Gaddafi and the surfeit of loose weapons in the region.

With Syria’s civil war still raging, Libya and Yemen by no means peaceful, popular discontent rising in Jordan and the Gulf, and the post-revolutionary regimes in Egypt and Tunisia only just holding their own, there is the spectre of acute instability, if not all-out war, stretching in an almost unbroken arc all the way from West Africa to South Asia. And the paradox is that this is happening just as the United States and most of its allies are losing their appetite for military intervention. Whether the French can extract themselves from Mali as speedily as they got themselves in, is a separate question, but neither Britain nor the US has shown any enthusiasm for joining them.

The long-term implications of such widespread unrest  for global security in general and European security in particular are disturbing enough. The kidnap of foreign nationals in Algeria in recent days could be only the beginning of a period in which whole swathes of North Africa, the Middle East and adjoining regions have to be regarded as unsafe. But there are short-term implications, too, which need to be considered urgently.

With the US planning to accelerate its withdrawal from Afghanistan – as President Obama made clear at his recent meeting with President Karzai – and Britain sure to follow suit, the last thing anyone needs is major regional upheaval, still less chaos in Pakistan. The successful withdrawal of troops and equipment depends to a large extent on guarantees of safe passage from the Pakistan authorities. Promised help from Russia is welcome, but no substitute for cooperation from Pakistan.

Yet the imminent departure of foreign combat troops from Afghanistan is also an ingredient in the mix that threatens new instability in Pakistan. Qualms about what happens in Afghanistan, once the only foreign troops left are in training and support roles, are not restricted to the countries that are withdrawing. They are felt even more keenly in Pakistan.

The possible return of the Taliban, if not to power then to extensive influence, is a big concern. But the greater fear is of turmoil in Afghanistan that spills into Pakistan. Porous borders mean that, to a degree, this is already happening. But the threat of a total breakdown of order in Afghanistan that could precipitate the collapse of the state in nuclear-armed Pakistan is a prospect that must be addressed. With new tensions arising with India in Kashmir, Pakistan’s borders seem to be fraying. At a time when the West generally is drawing in its horns, the world on its fringes suddenly looks more perilous than for a very long time.