Pakistan in 2013: Yes, it could get worse

Four years ago, the U.S. Congress announced the findings of a bipartisan investigation into weapons of mass destruction.

Chillingly, the study predicted a nuclear or biological attack by the end of 2013 -- with a high likelihood that it would originate in Pakistan.

Could this prediction come true next year? The risk of Pakistani nukes falling into the wrong hands is certainly high. Last August, militants attacked an air force base near Islamabad thought to store nuclear weapons. Several weeks later, security officials acknowledged a "serious" threat from the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) to assault one of Pakistan's largest nuclear installations. All this in a country where, according to an unsettling Atlantic report, assets are frequently exposed: "[N]uclear bombs capable of destroying entire cities are transported in delivery vans [by the military] on congested and dangerous roads."

This potential nuclear nightmare will undoubtedly consume many minds. Yet the nightmare we should really be focusing on in 2013 is the one Pakistan's already living -- increasing sectarian strife, economic struggle, and general insecurity.

Various forms of violence afflict Pakistan, but 2012 was the year of the sectarian attack. This autumn, 150 members of the Shia Muslim minority were killed in a four-week span. By early December, nearly 400 had died in 2012 -- the most since the 1990s. One prominent Pakistani commentator has described his country's anti-Shia violence as "genocide unfolding before us." Other religious minorities are besieged as well -- especially Ahmadis, a Muslim sect most Pakistanis regard as heretical.

Expect this all to continue in 2013. State responses inspire little confidence; arrests are rarely made, and protection is scarcely provided. After the recent desecration of an Ahmadi cemetery, police promptly announced they would not provide security at such sites.

Yet the worst is still likely to come. Sectarian attacks are usually carried out by groups like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, but the TTP has asserted responsibility for some of the most recent ones -- suggesting an emerging alliance between two of Pakistan's most vicious Sunni extremist entities. This is an ominous development in a nation where, according to polling, 41 percent of Muslims don't regard Shias as true Muslims.

Religious minorities aren't the only ones suffering. Pakistan's economy is in free fall, and impoverished residents have resorted to setting themselves on fire because they can't provide for their families. Expect this privation to continue next year when, the IMF predicts, Pakistan experiences double-digit inflation. A ballooning debt and dwindling foreign reserves will also reach crisis levels. This is why a fresh IMF loan -- declined by Islamabad in 2012 -- will likely be accepted next year out of desperation. Such assistance will provide some relief. However, unless Islamabad enlarges the tax base and enacts other revenue-generating yet politically risky policies, any relief will be temporary.

As these economic problems carry over into 2013, they will accentuate a broader crisis that has left many Pakistanis -- not just the poor -- furious. Pakistan is ravaged by all types of insecurity. It is a nation where, in a span of mere hours several weeks ago, a newborn sustained rat bites in a hospital nursery, 16 people perished from consuming toxic cough syrup, and a car bomb nearly killed a top journalist. Pakistanis seethe at the state's unwillingness to take corrective measures -- much less to provide basic protection. Earlier this year, a police official admitted "we were under strict instructions to do nothing" as assailants beat schoolgirls for not wearing the hijab.

Many Pakistanis hope national elections, scheduled for next spring, will reverse this gloomy state of affairs. One candidate for prime minister, legendary cricketer Imran Khan, is tapping into the country's malaise and promising a "tsunami" of change. His athletic feats, incorruptible nature, non-dynastic background, and philanthropic efforts (all rarities for Pakistani politicians) have endeared him to millions -- particularly young, urban-based Pakistanis.

While Khan inspires hope in Pakistan, he triggers anxiety in Washington. Khan's campaign platform is stridently anti-American, and his views on militancy are troubling (he has favored negotiations with the uncompromisingly brutal TTP). If his Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party wins a majority of seats and he becomes premier, U.S. efforts to improve cooperation with Islamabad will grow far more challenging.

Then again, Khan is no shoo-in. Thanks to the patronage-fueled rural power centers of Pakistan's ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and top opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML), it's likely that one of these parties will form the next government. The PPP has declared that 24-year-old Bilawal Bhutto -- son of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto and current president Asif Ali Zardari -- will formally enter politics next year. This will energize the party's base, and enhance its electoral prospects.

Washington would prefer the relatively pro-U.S. PPP (or the more conservative PML) over Khan's PTI. Regardless of the election outcome, however, the United States should lower its expectations for ties with Islamabad come 2013. Don't be fooled by the flurry of high-level meetings rounding out 2012, and by official statements proclaiming relations back on track after months of tensions. Mistrust will remain deep, interests will still diverge, and, because neither side exerts much leverage over the other, favors will continue to be difficult to extract.

This isn't to say the United States should divorce Pakistan, which contains one of the world's largest and youngest populations; boasts its seventh-largest army; will soon be the fifth-largest nuclear power; and counts critical players China and Saudi Arabia as its closest allies.

Instead, the new Obama administration should enter 2013 with a retooled relationship in mind -- one that is both scaled-back and long-term.

In practice, this means seizing the few available opportunities for cooperation on official levels. These include countering improvised explosives devices (which are manufactured in Pakistan, but kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan) and targeting the TTP (which attacks both the Pakistani state and Americans in Afghanistan).

Washington should also engage unofficial Pakistan -- particularly the young, urbanizing middle class that, demographically speaking, will soon dominate the country. Already, this group makes major contributions to Pakistan's underrated higher education system, including the prestigious Lahore University of Management Sciences (a professor there has been recognized as one of the world's top 35 innovators). And it supplies brainpower for a hidden jewel -- Pakistan's burgeoning IT sector. Many people know the name Malala Yousafzai -- the 15-year-old girl's education advocate shot by the Taliban. Yet few outside Pakistan know that of Arfa Karim -- a 16-year-old computer genius (and the world's youngest Microsoft Certified Professional) who died this year after an epileptic seizure.

Pakistan is in for a rough 2013. Yet so long as its brave and resilient society continues to produce the likes of Malala and Arfa, there will be some reason for hope.