The Jihadist Threat to Pakistan

Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen Former Brookings Expert

June 1, 2003

In Pakistan, radical Islamic groups seek revolutionary changes in the Pakistani political and social order, support violence to achieve those changes, and may be actively involved in violence and terrorism across Pakistan’s frontiers, but their attempts to infiltrate the government of Pakistan have proven feeble and easily countered thus far. On the street, radical Islamists do not—at least not yet—have significant influence in the Punjab, Pakistan’s largest and most important province. With little mass support in this deeply Islamic yet still moderate country, radical Islamists have not been able to successfully conduct an Islamic coup to seize the levers of government, and they stand little chance of doing so within the next five years. Beyond that, however, Pakistan’s future is uncertain.

The political dominance and institutional integrity of the Pakistani army remains the chief reason for the marginality of radical Islamic groups. Although the army has a long history of using radical and violent Islamists for political purposes, it has little interest in supporting their larger agenda of turning Pakistan into a more comprehensively Islamic state. Pakistan’s political, institutional, economic, and social decay will have to accelerate before radical groups emerge as an independent political force.

Unless steps are taken now to rebuild a moderate Pakistan, however, the rise of radical Islamists as a significant political force could be one of several unpalatable futures for this increasingly chaotic, nuclear-armed state. Pakistan’s educational system must be reconstructed; its economy requires massive overhaul; and the generals’ obsession with adventurist and ultimately debilitating foreign policy goals must be curbed. Otherwise, radical Islamists will see their power grow, possibly in conjunction with new separatist movements and an increase in state authoritarianism. The dangers of Islamic radicalism in Pakistan in the short run have been exaggerated, but within a decade, that country could truly become one of the world’s most dangerous states.

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