Pakistan today is a complete mess, a sad example of what can happen when a once-favored “frontline state” is reduced to the status of a cold war orphan. In his recent brief visit President Clinton urged a quick return to civilian rule, but in fact few Pakistanis mourn Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s overthrow last October of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s corrupt and oppressive pseudo-democracy. The poor and the secular-liberal intelligentsia pray that the new military regime will prevent a slide toward further chaos. These hopes are likely to be dashed, since the regime is paralyzed by internal divisions. Mohammed Aziz and Mahmoud Ahmed, the two key generals flanking Musharraf, are known for their sympathies with the fundamentalist Taliban.

Several tests confront the new strongman of Pakistan: Will he be able to modernize the economy and end the corruption and violence that plague the country’s major cities? Has he the will to disarm the fundamentalist militias, which have been fighting a sectarian civil war for nearly three years, without disturbing the unstable equilibrium within the army? Will he be able to make peace with India? These are the questions that a US President visiting a decaying protectorate would have addressed if he were genuinely interested in the welfare of the country. In all three areas, however, Washington is incapable of providing guidance. The US/IMF neoliberal agenda forbids desperately needed economic reforms, Washington is deeply implicated in the rise of the fundamentalist groups through its multibillion-dollar aid to the Afghan mujahedeen, and America’s failure to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty makes a mockery of its repeated demands that Pakistan and India sign the pact.

A basic modernization of Pakistan would include drastic land reform and a tax on wealth, increased state spending on primary and secondary education and healthcare, more public housing and the development of new medium-sized towns to decrease the pressure on large cities. A massive reduction in the military budget is crucial–roughly 6 percent of the country’s GDP is devoted to the country’s bloated military, about twice what is spent on education and health combined. And any serious political reform would include constitutional rights for women and minorities. The UN Development Program’s gender empowerment measure, which rates gender inequality in areas of economic and political participation and decision-making, ranked Pakistan second worst in the world. Last year there were more than 1,000 “honor killings” of women.

Far from representing progress toward a solution, the October putsch has multiplied a succession of cumulative problems. It is true that the new regime has constructed a civilian charade around itself. Think tanks are flourishing, just like the poppy fields producing heroin under Taliban supervision next door in Afghanistan, but their presence solves nothing. Finance Minister Shaukat Aziz, a soft-spoken, US-educated former employee of Citibank, might appease the IMF and the World Bank, but free-market fanaticism can only enlarge the space for the armed bands of Islamists who roam the cities, unchecked and unafraid, the only available alternative to globalization.

In successive general elections, the people have consistently voted against hard-line religious parties. The strength of religious extremism, till now, has been derived from state patronage rather than popular support. The groups that are currently paralyzing the country were the creation of the late and unlamented Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who received Saudi petrodollars and political, military and financial support from the United States and Britain throughout his years as dictator, from 1977 to 1988. The West needed Zia to fight its war against the former Soviet Union after that country invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Nothing else mattered. The CIA turned a blind eye to the sale of heroin, supposedly to fund that war, and the results are hideous: The number of officially registered heroin addicts in Pakistan rose from 130 in 1977 to 30,000 in 1988. Now there are several million addicts.

It was during this period that a network of madrassahs (religious boarding schools) was established throughout the country. Initially, most of these were funded by foreign aid from a variety of sources. These schools became the training grounds for a new-style religious “scholar.” Since board and lodging were free, it was not only the children of poor Afghan refugees who flocked to receive this privileged and unique instruction. Poor peasant families were only too happy to donate a son to the madrassahs. It would be one less mouth to feed at home, and the boy would be educated and might find a job in the city or, if he was really lucky, in one of the Persian Gulf states. These childern were taught verses from the Koran and the necessity to lead a devout life–and to banish all doubt as well. The aim was clear: These madrassahs were nurseries designed to produce fanatics. As they grew older the children were instructed in the use of sophisticated weapons and taught how to make and plant bombs. Agents from the government’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) provided training and supervision and observed the development of the more promising students, or taliban, who were later picked out and sent for more specialized training at secret army camps, the better to fight the “holy war” against the Communist unbelievers in Afghanistan.

For a time the war against the Soviet Union consumed their energies. After the Soviets were defeated, the Pakistani government, under Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, saw an opportunity to extend its sphere of influence over Afghanistan. It therefore refused to accept the coalition government in Kabul and in 1994 unleashed the Taliban, which, backed by Pakistani Army commando units, seized the capital within two years.

The dragon seeds sown in 2,500 madrassahs produced a crop of 225,000 fanatics ready to kill and die for their faith when ordered to do so by their religious leaders. Gen. Naseerullah Babar, Interior Minister under Bhutto, confided to friends that since the Taliban were becoming a menace inside Pakistan, he had decided that the only solution to the problem lay in giving the extremists their own country. The poor fool. He could not imagine that the Taliban are not small-minded provincials. Their aim is to purify the entire house of Islam. Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader and Osama bin Laden’s father-in-law, lost an eye in the struggle against the Afghan Communists. His remaining eye looks now at Pakistan and now at Central Asia. Power has made Omar and bin Laden giddy with success, and they have lost all sense of proportion. It is this that makes them dangerous for the region as a whole.

What if reality began to mimic our nightmares and the Taliban took over the Pakistani Army? Every political leader in Pakistan is aware of the danger. Nawaz Sharif, the deposed prime minister, tried to pre-empt political Islam by stealing some of its clothes and forging alliances with fundamentalists in the army, but the tactic backfired spectacularly. General Musharraf’s success, however, should not be used to conceal a dangerous truth. The army is seriously split. A fundamentalist coup was narrowly averted in 1995, and two former heads of the ISI are closely linked to the armed Islamist militias. The fundamentalists have penetrated the army on every level. It is this fact that prevents the military from disarming the militias, which, despite their minority status, are creating mayhem in the country.

The irony of the present situation is that religion in the Punjab was always a relaxed affair. The old tradition of Sufi mysticism, with its emphasis on individual communion with the Creator and its hostility to preachers, had deep roots in the countryside. The tombs of the old Sufi saints, for centuries the site of annual festivals during which the participants sang, danced, drank, smoked bhang and fornicated to their heart’s content, were placed under martial law by General Zia. The people were to be denied simple pleasures.

The arrival of a peculiarly non-Punjabi form of religious extremism was the birth of madness. Every faction now lays moral and political claim to Islam. Disputes are no longer settled through discussion but resolved by machine guns and massacres. Some Sunni groups (Pakistan is more than two-thirds Sunni) want the Shiites to be declared heretics and, preferably, exterminated. They have attacked Shiite mosques in the heart of Lahore and massacred the Shiite faithful at prayer. The Shiites, with Iranian backing, have begun to exact a gruesome revenge. Several hundred people have died in these intra-Muslim massacres, mainly Shiites.

In January 1998 an armed Taliban faction seized a whole group of villages in the Hangu district of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province. They declared the area to be under “Islamic laws” and promptly organized the public destruction of TV sets and antennae in the village of Zargari. This was followed by the burning of 3,000 “obscene” videos and audiocassettes in the small square in Lukki. There is something slightly comical in this hostility to television–it reminds one of a Situationist spectacle in the sixties–but humor, alas, is not something associated with the Taliban. The leader of the movement, Hussain Jalali, wants to extend the Afghan experience to Pakistan. After the television burning, he declared, “The hands and feet of thieves will be chopped off and all criminals brought to justice in accordance with Islamic laws.”

The fundamentalist influence over the army is clearly visible in the struggle with India over control of Kashmir, which has been smoldering for years but exploded onto the front pages last summer with the occupation by Islamic militants of Kargil, in Indian-controlled Kashmir. After two months of fighting, the Clinton Administration persuaded Prime Minister Sharif to withdraw support for the militants. Sharif, now on trial for murder and hijacking, claimed in court that one of the reasons for the October coup was the army’s unhappiness at his willingness to pull back from Kargil.

One of the most virulent and orthodox of the Sunni sects, Jamiat-e-Ahle Hadith, is a creation of the ISI. Ahle Hadith wants the Saudi model of Islam implanted in Pakistan, but without the monarchy. It has supporters and mosques throughout the world, whose aim is to supply cadres and money for the worldwide jihad. This sect is in a minority, but the president of the country, a bearded fool named Rafiq Tarrar, is a supporter and government ministers have graced its meetings. I was tempted to interview members of the sect at one of its offices in Lahore when I visited last fall, but the sight of thirty heavily armed guards decided me against the venture.

Ahle Hadith’s armed wing, Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Pure), could not exist without the patronage of the army. It has a membership of 50,000 militants and is the leading group in the “jihad” to “liberate” Indian Kashmir. The teenagers it recruits from poor families are trained by the army at eight special camps in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir and are funded by Saudi Arabia as well as the Pakistani government. The government pays them 50,000 rupees (approximately $1,000, roughly equivalent to a schoolteacher’s annual salary) for each corpse–several hundred so far–returned from Kashmir. The Indian government has accused Lashkar of carrying out the massacre of thirty-five Sikhs in Kashmir on the eve of President Clinton’s visit.

The Harakat ul-Ansar (Volunteers Movement), which was funded by the United States during the anti-Soviet Afghan war and backed by the ISI, was declared a terrorist organization by the State Department in 1998. It promptly changed its name to Harakat ul-Mujahedeen. This is the group that hijacked an Indian Airlines plane this past December. Its fighters were among the most dedicated Taliban, and it has shifted its training camps from the Punjab to Afghanistan. Harakat’s leader, Osama bin Laden, continues to maintain close contacts with the ISI, and his supporters have warned the government that any attempt to abduct him or ban his organization would lead to an immediate civil war in Pakistan. They boast that the army, which is full of their supporters, will never agree to be used against them.

Both these groups want to take over Pakistan. They dream of an Islamic Federation that will impose a Pax Talibana stretching from Lahore to Samarkand but avoiding the Shiite “Heretic Republic of Iran.” For all their incoherence and senseless rage, their message is attractive to those layers of the population who yearn for some order in their lives. If the fanatics promise to feed them and educate their children, they are prepared to forgo the delights of CNN and BBC World. If a pro-Taliban faction were ever to seize control of the army–a serious possibility when Musharraf fails–the possession of nuclear weapons would assume an even more frightening significance. It is unlikely that either India or China would sit back indefinitely.

There is a serious and rational alternative to domestic chaos: a long-term treaty of friendship and trade with India and a permanent settlement that could form the basis of a larger European Union-style confederation of South Asian states. Within such a framework even the bitterly disputed question of Kashmir could be solved. Only a vocal minority of religious groups, backed by the army, is opposed to a serious deal with India.

For more than fifty years Pakistan, with the backing of the State Department, turned its back on India and cultivated links with the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia. This policy has been a political and economic failure, leaving the country denuded of skilled labor and incapable of meeting its basic needs. The lesson is obvious. If the politicians of this turbulent subcontinent fail to devise a way to live with one another, they will end up dying together. The fallout could affect the entire planet.