ON AUGUST 18, 2008, Pakistan entered the post-Musharraf era. Eventually this new chapter in Pakistan's history may go by another name, but for now what has been discarded is far more obvious than what has taken its place. Today's Pakistan, wracked by unprecedented levels of domestic instability and violence, enfeebled by crumbling state institutions and inadequate public infrastructure, and riven by political, ethnic, sectarian and socioeconomic cleavages, faces a deeply uncertain future.
The Pakistan of 2008 is not what it was even nine years ago when Pervez Musharraf took power. It is weaker, more directly threatened by terrorism and ripe for further political instability. Important new forces that will shape Pakistan's future have emerged beyond its borders, including globalized communications and electronic media, the rise of Asia and Washington's war on terror. Other new forces are essentially indigenous: a more mobilized and politically aware civil society, a vocal media and a next generation of over 65 million under fifteen years of age. Musharraf's regime contributed to some of this transformation, but much was simply beyond its control.
In a nightmare scenario, Pakistan's nuclear arsenal could fall prey to international terrorists, threatening the lives of millions. But even without an apocalyptic attack, Pakistan faces a future that could include military coups, growing extremism, a potential collapse of the state or a move toward rogue-nation status.
Over the past decade, the United States and Pakistan have lurched from crisis to crisis, the urgent often trumping the important. Long-term-strategy creation has fallen victim to more pressing problems. It is time for the United States to recognize that the Pakistan issue is here to stay-regardless of bin Laden's al-Qaeda.
Islamabad, and by extension Kabul, will almost certainly consume the foreign-policy attentions of the next White House and may well preoccupy U.S. presidents for the next several decades. And that is only if we are lucky.
There are a number of disastrous scenarios that could turn Pakistan's politics and economics upside down in the very near future. But assuming that Pakistan's trajectory over the next decade is marked by more iterative-if rapid-shifts, rather than by radical and discontinuous change, there are a variety of plausible scenarios that capture the essential dynamics of Pakistan's state and society.
Each begins with a common starting point in the present, defined by six outstanding characteristics. The first of these is the dramatic rise of mass-casualty terrorism in Pakistan's major cities as well as its frontier west. While the megacity of Karachi has long been the victim of sectarian and ethnic violence, the latest rash of terrorist attacks in Lahore, Islamabad and Peshawar demonstrates the extent to which localized militants and global terror groups now identify the Pakistani state-especially those within its military and civilian leadership who have publicly opposed Islamist extremism-as their primary target.