Warning. This piece is opinionated and reflects my personal views.
Pakistan has kept up a fragile balancing act between democracy and despotism, between the US and its Muslim roots, between being the Taliban's friend or foe. I lived in Pakistan for a number of years before and during the 9/11 crisis and always found it quite an inflammable country, which could ignite with the slightest spark.
The country's leader after the 1999 coup d'etat, Pervez Musharraf, who resigned as the Commander in Chief of the armed forces a few months ago, just stepped down as the country's president amidst an increased campaign of terrorist attacks and worsening civil unrest.
Musharraf might not have been the school example for democracy but it seems that he was able to keep the fragile balance the country needed in a turbulent region, and neighbouring its arch-rival India.
With the Taliban's power yet again on the raise in Afghanistan and in Pakistan's -almost self ruling- tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, one should worry if this country, a nuclear power, can continue to please the West, its population, and the extremists.
The more a worry because while Pakistan was -officially- an US ally in the war against terror, it is now said its intelligence service, the ISI, always 'tolerated', if not supported and even trained, the Taliban in the recent years.
Matthew Cole wrote an interesting article "Killing ourselves in Afghanistan" which gives a must-read insight in the balancing act Pakistan's military have performed before, during and after the 9/11 crisis. The article features the intriguing story of a defunct Taliban officer.
My prediction: the current ruling frail coalition might find it difficult to fill the power vacuum of the post-Musharraf era. Either extremists will go for the throne or will plunge the country in chaos. If Pakistan tumbles, the whole region might go up in flames again. OR, of course, the country rulers might go for the classical political solution: deviate the public's attention from the real problems, and start a "whag the dog"-war. India? Either way, it makes the events in Pakistan a worrying spot in the spectrum of world politics.
Update (less than a day after writing this post):
Pakistan's ruling coalition split after former premier Nawaz Sharif withdrew over differences on the restoration of judges sacked by ex-president Pervez Musharraf. (Full)
2nd Update (a few hours later):
An estimated 200,000 people from the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan have been displaced since the Pakistani army launched the Bajaur operation early this month in response to growing U.S. pressure to take action against the Taliban in the region, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.(Full)
3rd Update (16-Sept-2008):
Pakistan's military has ordered its forces to open fire if U.S. troops launch another air or ground raid across the Afghan border, an army spokesman said. Pakistani officials warn that stepped-up cross-border raids will accomplish little while fueling violent religious extremism in nuclear-armed Pakistan.(Full)
4th Update (20-Sept-2008):
Suicide bomber blows up a truck full of explosives outside of the Islamabad Marriott hotel, killing at least 40 people (Full)
5th Update (2-Oct-2008):
UN orders staff families to evacuate Islamabad (Full)
6th Update (03-Oct-2008):
War has come to Pakistan, not just as terrorist bombings, but as full-scale battles, leaving Pakistanis angry and dismayed as the dead, wounded and displaced turn up right on their doorstep. (Full)
7th Update (09-Oct-2008):
Bombings killed 10 people and wounded at least four, including an attack on a heavily guarded Islamabad police complex. (Full)
8th Update (Nov-2009):
We are now one year later. Looking at the frequency of suicide bombings, attacks on civilians, the international community and the aid organisations, it seems my prediction was pretty spot on so far... Sadly...
Picture courtesy Khalid Tanveer/AP