WASHINGTON (Reuters) - What do Pakistan and Mexico have in common? They figure in the nightmares of U.S. military planners trying to peer into the future and identify the next big threats.
The two countries are mentioned in the same breath in a just-published study by the United States Joint Forces Command, whose jobs include providing an annual look into the future to prevent the U.S. military from being caught off guard by unexpected developments.
"In terms of worst-case scenarios for the Joint Force and indeed the world, two large and important states bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse: Pakistan and Mexico," says the study - Joint Operating Environment 2008 - in a chapter on "weak and failing states." Such states, it says, usually pose chronic, long-term problems that can be managed over time.
But the little-studied phenomenon of "rapid collapse," according to the study, "usually comes as a surprise, has a rapid onset, and poses acute problems." Think Yugoslavia and its 1990 disintegration into a chaotic tangle of warring nationalities and bloodshed on a horrific scale.
Nuclear-armed Pakistan, where al-Qaeda has established safe havens in the rugged regions bordering on Afghanistan, is a regular feature in dire warnings. Thomas Fingar, who retired as the U.S.'s chief intelligence analyst in December, termed Pakistan "one of the single most challenging places on the planet."
This is fairly routine language for Pakistan, but not for Mexico, which shares a 2,000-mile (3,000 km) border with the United States.
Mexico's mention beside Pakistan in a study by an organization as weighty as the Joint Forces Command (which controls almost all conventional forces based in the continental U.S.) speaks volumes about growing concern over what's happening south of the U.S. border.
Vicious and widening violence pitting drug cartels against each other and against the Mexican state have left more than 8,000 Mexicans dead over the past two years. Kidnappings have become a routine part of Mexican daily life. Common crime is widespread. Pervasive corruption has hollowed out the state.
In November, in a case that shocked even those (on both sides of the border) who consider corruption endemic in Mexico, former drug czar Noe Ramirez was charged with accepting at least $450,000 a month in bribes from a drug cartel in exchange for information about police and anti-narcotics operations.
A month later, a Mexican army major, Arturo Gonzalez, was arrested on suspicion he sold information about President Felipe Calderon's movements for $100,000 a month. Gonzalez belonged to a special unit responsible for protecting the president.
DESCENT INTO CHAOS?
Depending on one's view, the arrests are successes in a publicly-declared anti-corruption drive or evidence of how deeply criminal mafias have penetrated the organs of the state.
According to the Joint Forces study, the possibility of a sudden collapse in Mexico is less likely than in Pakistan "but the government, its politicians, police, and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and pressure by criminal gangs and drug cartels. How that internal conflict turns out over the next several years will have a major impact on the stability of the Mexican state."
It added: "Any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone."
What form such a response might take is anyone's guess and the study does not spell it out, nor does it address the economic implications of its worst-case scenario. Mexico is the third biggest trade partner of the United States (after Canada and China) and its third-biggest supplier of oil (after Canada and Saudi Arabia).
No such ties bind the United States and Pakistan but the study sees a collapse there not only as more likely but also as more catastrophic.
It would bring "the likelihood of a sustained violent and bloody civil and sectarian war, an even bigger haven for violent extremists, and the question of what would happen to its nuclear weapons. That 'perfect storm' of uncertainty alone might require the engagement of U.S. and coalition forces into a situation of immense complexity and danger ... and with the real possibility that nuclear weapons might be used."
It is not clear where on the long list of actual and potential crises around the world Mexico and Pakistan will rank once Barack Obama takes office as U.S. president on Jan. 20. During the election campaign, Obama repeatedly criticised Pakistan for not cracking down hard enough on terrorists inside its borders.
Since then a new Pakistani president came to power. Not long after, tensions between Pakistan and India, also a nuclear power, rose sharply after gunmen attacked two luxury hotels and other sites in Mumbai, India's commercial capital, and killed 179 people. India described the attack as a conspiracy hatched in Pakistan and carried out by Pakistanis.
Closer to home, the U.S. economic crisis looks likely to slow down a $1.4 billion assistance program (military equipment, training, technology) to help the Mexican government gain the upper hand over the drug cartels and re-establish control over what some have called "failed cities" along the border, places where shootouts, beheadings and kidnappings have become routine.
It would take a very rosy outlook on the future to expect rapid progress.