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Waves of Uncertainties in Pakistan

Recently, Pakistan’s tumultuous political and economic landscape has garnered significant international attention, especially from the great powers, as Pakistan still struggles to ensure its people’s social welfare and map out strategies to respond to the rise in extremism. How come? To put it into a better perspective, Pakistan’s economy substantially relies on foreign trade. However, with the war in Ukraine, destructive floods, and the COVID-19 pandemic, this dependence has been proven to be disastrous as annual inflation soared to over 27% at the beginning of 2023, a record-high since 1975. Consequently, making it harder for the Pakistanis to fulfill their daily needs and import fossil fuels which is an essential commodity necessary to propel the manufacturing and agriculture industries that are the backbone of Pakistan’s society (Davies, 2023). Entrapped in a dire economic situation and sovereign debts, the government thus has limited funds to conduct military operations against extremist and terror groups which are on the rise as inequality looms (Joles, 2023; Tata, 2023). 

Pakistan’s failing economy has also been exacerbated by uncertainties in the political and governmental sectors. After Imran Khan was toppled from power in April 2022, Shehbaz Sharif was elected prime minister and came to face many challenges. Khan accused Sharif’s government of being “foreign-imposed” in which Western conspiracies or powers were believed to be behind domestic changes that could actually increase the risk of militant groups’ attacks against state institutions (Ahmed, 2022). Seeing the turbulence within the political front, the military, which has a long history as the dominating power in Pakistan, is expected to remain intensely active in maintaining its power in the country (Ahmed, 2022). Nonetheless, the questionable stability of the current government also raises the question of who will swoop in and seize control of Pakistan’s nuclear armaments.

Outside of the domestic political arena, neighboring countries have shown embedded interests in Pakistan. India, its next-door neighbor, has been embroiled in a protracted conflict for nearly a century with Pakistan in which they fought over Kashmir, even though each currently administers only parts of it (Ahmed, 2021). Additionally, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which was launched as a joint partnership to improve Pakistan’s infrastructure in order to build a “mechanism for sustainable economic growth”, has managed to not only guarantee Beijing’s sphere of influence but also the trade passage in the Arabian Sea (Mardell, 2020). With all these different factors, this article will attempt to provide a concise overview of what is at stake if Pakistan falls and how Pakistan’s state of affairs will impact its surrounding areas and global political-security dynamics.

Threats in The Dark

As rampant as the existing situation is, Pakistan’s potential downfall would not lead to any better circumstances. As many recognize, Pakistan is notorious as a home to terrorism. For decades, Pakistan’s government has been involved in financing and supporting groups of terrorists to operate freely while cracking down on Pakistan’s enemies. Groups such as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Haqqani, and many more are expected to use Pakistan (for instance, the Pashtun Belt) as their territory in launching attacks on ISAF/NATO forces. Even more, Pakistan remains as a safe harbor for these groups to launch attacks at targeted regions, such as Afghanistan and India (US Department of State, 2019).

The internal instability, however, paved the way for terror groups to hit the government directly to take full control of the country. (Younus in Hussain, 2023). In 2022, Pakistan experienced a 120% increase in terrorism-related deaths, overtaking Afghanistan as the first country with the most terrorist attacks in South Asia (Gul, 2023). The terror culminated in one of the country’s deadliest attacks at Peshawar Mosque in January 2023 that killed at least 57 people and wounded many, leaving Pakistan’s North-West border as a rainstorm of terrorist resurgence (Baloch & Petersen, 2023). 

The list of dangers doesn’t stop there as Pakistan is also known to be one of the few countries expanding its nuclear arsenal. Per 2021, the International Atomic Energy Agency estimated that Pakistan has 165 nuclear warheads, 4 plutonium production reactions with 400 kilograms of weapon-grade plutonium, and 4.000 kilograms of weapon-grade Uranium (Srivastava, 2023). It is clearly distressing as, in comparison, Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear only require about 5 to 6 kilograms of plutonium. Pakistan’s nuclear strategy is premised on ‘full-spectrum deterrence.’ Such a strategy develops not only long-range nuclear but also nuclear capabilities that could be utilized on the battlefield.

Proving its huge ambitions, Pakistan successfully tested its Babus IA cruise missile in February 2021 (Noor, 2023). Frighteningly, in a collapse scenario, this looming power of nuclear arsenal may fall into “unscrupulous non-state hands”, specifically the terrorists. While the use of the nuclear arsenal is not actually feasible due to the numerous safety valves in the activation process and the natural threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD), the mix of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and the menacing rise of terrorists will be just the perfect potion to transform the situation in Pakistan into one of the biggest threats to the global community, a situation with no better outcome. 

Risks for Surrounding Regions

The collapse of Pakistan would certainly spell trouble for the rest of the world, especially in South Asia. Globally, the first point of concern would be the security of Pakistan’s 165 nuclear warheads (Kristensen et al., 2023). With that in mind, the United States (US) would be one of the international actors interested in securing the Pakistani nuclear arsenal. Having no shortage of anti-American elements, preventing those nuclear warheads from falling into the wrong hands would be a nightmare that is well within the US’s ability to prevent. 

The US would be forced to directly and swiftly intervene in Pakistan’s national setting in order to either secure or eliminate the threat of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal (O’Hanlon, 2006, 383). But the cost of intervention would not be cheap. In 2023, the population of Pakistan is approximately 240.5 million, thus bringing the estimated troops needed to stabilize Pakistan could reach up to millions (O’Hanlon, 2006:384; UNFPA, 2023). Beyond that, an intervention by the US or other international forces could provoke Pakistan’s ally, China, into getting involved in the situation.

In terms of small and heavy weaponry, Pakistan is also in no short supply as they need those to supply its 1.704.000 military personnel (2023 Pakistan Military Strength, n.d.). The frightening amount of weaponry has the potential to be abused as happened in the aftermath of the Yugoslav wars where Yugoslav-made arms were found being used by ISIL terrorists in a series of coordinated attacks, one being the 2015 Paris attacks (Fraser, 2020). This past example showcases a serious risk of playing out again in the event of Pakistan collapsing. An outflow of weapons from a collapsed Pakistan could lead to instability, most noticeably, in its neighbors. The closest example would be India’s Punjab region which is home to Sikh separatist groups, the Khalistan movement, with a history of armed resistance (Mattoo & Agarwal, 2023). Pakistan has been known to support Khalistani groups in their struggle (Sharma, 2021). Thus, an outflow of weapons from Pakistan in the event of the government losing control would undoubtedly lead to weapons proliferation, such as among Khalistani groups, thus raising the risk of terror attacks. Aside from militant groups based in India, Pakistan-based militant groups would also flourish. A Pakistan that is too distracted by internal issues and instability would not be able to keep those militant groups in check, thus increasing the threat toward its next-door neighbor, India (Biswas, 2023). 

Not limited to its closest neighbor, other actors in the region would also feel the impact of the Pakistani government collapse. Pakistan receives aid from friendly states, among the major donors being the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and China. China, in particular, is a frequent donor and supporter of Pakistan, the notable relations between the two is also evident from the existence of the Gwadar Port in Pakistan which is a key component of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that gives China access to the Indian Ocean (Jose, 2018).

In fact, Pakistan’s economic crisis has shown direct impacts as many planned CPEC projects have not started and those that have are now incurring financial losses (ANI News, 2023). China will not allow Pakistan to collapse especially since the Red Dragon will lose access to the Indian Ocean and its usefulness in countering India (Brewster, 2023). Nevertheless, China is also conservative in its foreign aid, so if Pakistan keeps being unable to repay China’s debts, China would likely take control of key Pakistani infrastructure, such as the Gwadar Port. This means that China’s hold over Pakistan will simply be tighter (Brewster, 2023). 

Gambling on Pakistan’s Last Fortune

With social inequalities and turmoil haunting Pakistan, other countries surrounding it will be on the lookout to defend their national interests. The possibility of  Pakistan’s collapse would impose even greater threats globally due to: (1) the already-increasing activities of militant and terrorist groups, (2) the amount of nuclear weapons that could sporadically proliferate, and not to mention (3) the disputed legitimacy of the current regime. At this rate, Pakistan’s internal affairs would be too significant to be ignored by states like the corridor-ally China, nuclear-power US, long-lost brother India, but above all, the international community as a whole.


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Larasati Hidiaputri, Naufal Qinthara Rasyad, and Stefanie Gloria are staffs of Research and Analysis Division FPCI Chapter UI Board of 2023. They can be found on Instagram with username @larashdptr @stefani3gloria @danielmike877 and Twitter with username @larashdptr @DecimaFlotiglia @stefani94303403

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