Leader: Pakistan — the laboratory for world destruction

Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, said on a recent trip to Pakistan to visit flood-ravaged towns and villages: ''In the past, I have witnessed many natural disasters around the world, but nothing like this." Despite the relatively few deaths so far (in comparison to January's Haiti earthquake, for example), the UN estimates that 14 million people have been affected by the floods: more than were harmed by the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, the 2004 Asian tsunami and the Haiti earthquake put together.

The floods have dominated headlines across the world in recent weeks, but this special issue of the magazine had been scheduled long before they struck. Why? Pakistan matters. It is the world's second most populous Muslim country and is considered by the west to be the front line of the so-called war on terror. It is a nuclear-armed power that has gone to war four times with neighbouring India, and its armed forces are mired in a long, bloody struggle with Islamist insurgents on its border with war-torn Afghanistan. In 2009, a record 3,021 people died in terrorist attacks across Pakistan. So disturbed is the country that no cricket team will tour there.

Yet, amid all this, astonishingly, as William Dalrymple writes (on page 26): "The army continues to obsess about India." Polls show the public shares this obsession -- in a Pew Global Attitudes survey in July, 53 per cent of Pakistanis cited India as the greatest threat to their security, compared to 23 per cent for the Taliban and just 3 per cent for al-Qaeda.

Meanwhile, as the recent WikiLeaks war logs revealed, Pakistan's military intelligence service, the notorious ISI, continues to collude with the Taliban in a duplicitous state of affairs that was rightly denounced by David Cameron. The British mission in Afghanistan is imperilled by Pakistan's double game. So, too, is our security at home: British officials claim that three out of four terror plots discovered here in recent years can be traced back to camps in that country.

Pakistan -- flooded, bombed, bloodied, broke -- continues to teeter on the edge, some reports suggesting that the military is poised to return to power in yet another coup. Founded as a democratic nation, Pakistan has been ruled by military dictators for 33 of the 63 years that have passed since its creation in 1947. The country languishes at 141st out of 182 countries on the UN's Human Development Index. It stands at 139th out of the 180 countries on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index.

Indeed it is, above all else, the venal corruption of the Pakistani ruling classes that continues to blight this once-proud nation -- and fuel the destabilising rise of radical Islam. The former cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, in his interview on page 30, refers to the "collective political mafia" in Pakistan, which views politics as a "business". We hope Mr Khan is correct in his belief that there is a "general movement for change" inside the country, based around a free press, an independent judiciary and an idealistic younger generation.

But it will be up to the Pakistani elite ultimately to realise that the greatest threat that the Islamists and jihadists pose is to the very survival of Pakistan. At present, the liberal, secular, democratic Pakistan conceived by its founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (profiled by Akbar Ahmed on page 34), is very much a lost ideal.

Karl Kraus, the great satirist, once called fin-de-siècle imperial Vienna "the research laboratory for world destruction", because the most dangerous currents of his age flowed through the city. It is something similar with Pakistan today, which can stake a claim to being the world's most dangerous country.

This article first appeared in the 23 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan