What happens next politically and militarily in Pakistan as it slips further into chaos, becoming increasingly ungovernable, is of fundamental significance not only regionally but beyond as the Taliban-led offensive intensifies in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Most analysts and governments concur that the apocalyptic future Pakistan in its current state presents is plainly frightening.
Its ingredients include the scary scenario of a nuclear-armed state with the Taliban on the rise, a once dominant, united and professional military now increasingly divided along ethnic lines and unwilling to fight their Islamist brethren, topped by political wilderness with limited options.
Exacerbating this is the deteriorating security situation in neighbouring Afghanistan where the US and NATO troops have been fought to a standstill by a resurgent Taliban.
Afghanistan's bumper opium harvest with its attendant security and social hazards of enhanced heroin production, smuggling syndicates and criminalisation it engenders is a further complication that impacts adversely on the region's security scenario.
On the military front, two basic issues appear to be vexing Pakistani military planners.
First and the foremost is the fact that anti-insurgent operations suck in an inordinately large number of troops, which once committed are difficult if not impossible to de-induct without disastrous consequences closely related to achievement, morale and success or failure of the state in re-establishing its control.
This, in turn, has direct relevance to Islamabad maintaining a calibrated operational balance between its eastern or Indian and western or Afghanistan fronts.
Pakistan has deployed nearly 15 infantry brigades or some 45,000 troops against the Islamists; but its generals are aware of the dangers of such an enterprise and its low rate of success in all such situations.
To be more militarily assertive Pakistan needs to assign a minimum of 15 additional brigades, using up the country's entire reserves of its crucial 11 and 12 corps, in order to maintain the widely accepted ratio of 30 soldiers to counter one armed militant. But conversely, as militant numbers proliferate, so will multiply the need for soldiers, a commodity of which there are limited numbers.
An associated drawback is the Pakistan Army's declining morale, exemplified by largescale desertions and meek surrenders of not only the paramilitary but regular army units to Taliban cadres across the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and more recently the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
The collapse of civil administration not only in FATA strung along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border but also in the NWFP's picturesque Swat region is perpetuating the arc of instability by the day.
To add to Islamabad's woes is a local population hostile to government troops even if not entirely supportive of the Taliban.
A barometer of Taliban support can be gauged by a recent television report that residents at a small town in the Swat valley collected Rs.1.5 million for the mujahideen in just three hours.
Pakistani generals are well aware of the implications of undertaking large-scale operations in such a hostile terrain and have, doubtless, analysed closely the problems faced by the US and NATO troops in Afghanistan and the Indian Army in Jammu and Kashmir.
They are also doubtlessly aware that the massive engagement of the Pakistani armed forces across Swat has severely disrupted their control along the Durand Line separating Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Consequently, in a matter of weeks, hundreds of regrouped and well-armed fighters have reached southeastern Afghanistan to bolster the Taliban-led insurgency from Jalalabad to Khost.
Intelligence sources indicate that Al Qaeda is carefully choreographing the emerging situation by grooming a Taliban leadership that will, under no circumstances, even consider negotiating with the Pakistani military establishment and remain committed to fighting to the end.
Sirajuddin Haqqani is one such uncompromising leader who has emerged as a Caliph within this grouping and is fast becoming an icon in the war-torn region.
The son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, a well-known Afghan Mujahid leader from the 1980's, Sirajuddin is considered by Western governments as one of Afghanistan's most powerful Taliban commanders.
Significantly, Sirajuddin's constituency and cadres are not Afghan, but Pakistani, Arab and Chechen fighters unwilling to compromise on their goal of complete victory for Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
In a clever flanking move Sirajuddin and his cohorts recently took advantage of the Pakistani Army's operational pre-occupation in North and South Waziristan to establish their network in the Swat valley.
The Nov 3 emergency declaration by President Pervez Musharraf, the preparations for it and its implementation further distracted the military of which the Taliban astutely took tactical advantage.
Their seizure of at least four towns in the Swat valley, a few hours drive from Islamabad, without a fight - in some cases after brief negotiations with the authorities - is frightening evidence of their unhindered progress across large swathes of Pakistan.
According to media reports from the region, the Taliban has also secured successes similarly in Afghanistan's northwestern Farah province and in Uruzgan and Kandahar to the southwest. Like in Swat, these places too capitulated without much resistance.
Besides, a new wave of well-planned attacks has expanded the Taliban's hold over the Khost and Kunar provinces in southwest Afghanistan. And earlier this week the Taliban is believed to have launched the massive suicide attack in the northern Afghan Baghlan province in which scores died, including several parliamentarians like Sayed Mustafa Kazimi, the well-known Hazara Shia leader.
That events were not working to plan is evident from reports that in a particularly charged meeting attended by Musharraf's top commanders, the issue of "what now" dominated the tense proceedings.
The conflicting responses at the meet reportedly revealed further schisms amongst senior Pakistani generals, not entirely in consonance with either the president or his close allies like Lt. Gen. Nadeem Taj, head of the omnipotent Inter Services Intelligence Directorate (ISID), or Maj. Gen. Mian Nadeem Ijaz Ahmad, in charge of Military Intelligence.
This, in turn, begets the crucial question of whether the Pakistan Army stays united and whether Musharraf can keep his flock of generals together. Also, will some generals simply stop taking orders from Musharraf's headquarters and side with the Islamists?
Will some, realising that Musharraf is a rapidly declining power, side with former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and will ethnic disagreements prevail to an extent that the Indus Valley becomes entangled in civil war?
That broadly is the kind of instability looming in nuclear-armed Pakistan. It is not merely a question of civilian institutions holding, elections or any of the things normally associated with civil society and state rule.
In some sense the prevailing state of affairs in Pakistan impinges worryingly on the existence of the state itself with little hope of a quick resolution in sight.
[Brigadier (retd) Arun Sahgal heads the Centre for Strategic Studies in New Delhi and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rahul Bedi is a writer on military affairs. He can be reached at email@example.com]