The clearest thinking and writing I’ve ever done was under the influence of chemo drips. The prospect of death can be life affirming… or not.

The Soviet Union was on a chemo drip for the decade before it died, but few took serious notice. Sovietologists in the United States were too threat-oriented to recognize grave weaknesses. And those who benefitted so much from the perks of state in the USSR were, for the most part, disinterested or incapable of reversing negative trend lines. To be sure, the Nomenclatura knew that new energy was badly needed at the top, which accounted for the elevation of Mikhail Gorbachev. But the rot was so far advanced by that time that Gorbachev’s attempts at reform unhinged the state.

All of the nuclear weapons and fissile material accumulated by the Soviet security apparatus – stockpiles so large that no keeper of this treasure had an accurate count – helped not one bit to change this outcome. These surpluses were more than sufficient for deterrence, but worse than useless for what ailed the Soviet Union. Nuclear weapons could not reform a culture of corruption, political institutions or the agricultural sector.

Pakistan now faces an existential crisis that requires, for starters, clear thinking.

A country in desperate need of water has been deluged by it. A political system that justifiably receives low marks for governance in the absence of crises could not cope with a natural disaster of this magnitude. President Asif Ali Zadari, now emblematic of what ails Pakistan, chose not to let the onset of flooding interfere with his travel plans to France, where he reportedly checked on his real estate portfolio, and Great Britain, where he planned to choreograph a public appearance by his son, recently graduated from Oxford, to help secure another family inheritance, one of Pakistan’s major political parties. This seminal event was shelved in lieu of a fund raiser for disaster relief. [Product endorsement: Readers can make earmarked charitable contributions to help Pakistan recover from this disaster via the Red Cross and Doctors without Borders.]

For Pakistan, as well as India, the future now holds a million mutinies. Indian security forces are used to managing mutinies; Pakistan’s security forces are not. With an economy in decline, croplands and power grids destroyed, and a ruling class that does not believe in load sharing, micro-level revolts over land and electricity are likely to pile on to the macro list of Pakistan’s woes. Sectarian violence has not taken a holiday during Ramazan and the flood; militant groups are threatening U.S. aid workers, and the hollowing out of Islamabad’s writ over the country is accelerating. As if this weren’t enough, the pride of Pakistan – members of the national cricket team – have been credibly accused of fixing matches.

Disease gets a blank check when existential threats do not prompt a re-thinking of root causes. Pakistan’s military leaders now face very hard questions, the result of poor decisions made at earlier, critical junctures. Pakistan’s Kashmir policy, which was once viewed as a low-cost way to keep India off-balance and foster national unity has done far more damage to Pakistan than to India. Military takeovers have stymied political development without promoting sound governance. The Army’s expansion into economic domains has restricted economic growth and entrepreneurship. [Ayesha Siddiqa, in Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy (2007), estimates that Pakistan’s military accounts for 7% of the nation’s GDP; runs one-third of Pakistan’s heavy manufacturing; owns 59% of all rural, arable land and 65% of it in Punjab.] It is hard for Pakistan’s military to prepare to defend national territory when it is trying to run Pakistan’s government, agriculture and economy.

The cost of defending Pakistan would be significantly less if Pakistan pursued reconciliation and economic trade with India, but movement along these lines in the past has been stymied by assaults on iconic Indian targets by young men trained and equipped in Pakistan. New Delhi’s political leaders should have the wisdom to understand that seizing and holding Pakistani territory would be like trying to swallow a porcupine, but continued mass casualty attacks by militant, Islamic groups based in Pakistan beg the question of New Delhi’s continued forbearance. India’s armed forces have the responsibility of developing punitive plans and are acquiring the capabilities to execute them if given these orders.

Pakistan’s military is therefore caught between a rock and a hard place. The conventional balance is tipping more and more in India’s favor, which means relying increasingly on nuclear weapons that, if used, would be Pakistan’s ultimate disaster. (In the midst of current travails, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, Zamir Akram, reaffirmed his country’s veto on starting FMCT negotiations.) Militant groups remain a double-edged sword. The Army is taking on one group, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan that has blown up mosques, markets and military installations, at significant cost. Other outfits, such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and its parent organization, are inconvenienced only after major explosions in India. They are poison to Pakistan’s political and economic development, posing a threat to the state that Muhammad Ali Jinnah envisioned — but they are also likely to become the Pakistan Army’s allies in the event of an Indian attack triggered by their actions. The longer this dilemma continues, the harder it becomes for the Pakistan Army to address. Taking over governing functions would only add to GHQ’s headaches, but it is once again evident that Pakistan’s political leaders have done well for themselves and poorly for their country.

So what, in current circumstances, does it mean to defend Pakistan?