January 12, 2004

January 12, 2004 | Commentary on Middle East

The Perils of Pakistan

Pakistan may be the most important country Americans don't know is important. U.S. national security hinges more on our relationship with Islamabad than with just about any other nation today.

Overstatement? Consider this: Militant Pakistani affiliates of al Qaeda have tried to assassinate Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf twice in just the last month. A successful hit on Musharraf could reverse the significant progress made in the War on Terror, undermine nuclear nonproliferation and snuff out the nascent Indian-Pakistani peace initiative.

* War on Terror: Pakistan is a key frontline state in the international terrorist struggle. After 9/11, Musharraf did a one-eighty on the Taliban and let U.S. forces operate from Pakistani soil against the Taliban/al Qaeda axis in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. It arrested hundreds of al Qaeda, including vaunted ops boss Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

But Pakistan is still awash in Taliban (and Taliban sympathizers) and al Qaeda (and al Qaeda wannabes.) In early October, Osama bin Laden's deputy thug, Ayman al Zawahiri, called for them to overthrow Musharraf for "betraying" Islam. Secular Pakistan is now on al Qaeda's official hit list.

Pakistan's Northwest Frontier province is the stomping grounds of public enemy numero uno, Osama bin Laden, and former Talibanista Mullah Omar. Musharraf has realized that Islamic extremists, including those in the military and the dreaded Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) organization, are the greatest threat to a stable, peaceful Pakistani future - not India. (Nothing like a couple of near-miss bomb explosions to clear the head . . . )

* Nuclear Nonproliferation: Pakistan is the only nuclear weapons state in the Muslim world. Unfortunately, the father of the Pakistani bomb, A.Q. Khan, is also a sire of the Iranian, North Korean and Libyan nuclear-weapons programs. Moreover, Khan is rumored to have considered sharing nuclear weapons technology with Saudi Arabia, which is antsy about a nuclear Iran controlling the Persian Gulf.

Pakistan's proliferation transgressions have been aired publicly of late and Musharraf has opened an investigation into the technology transfers, vowing to stop the proliferation. (We'll see.) Meanwhile, al Qaeda and Pakistani Islamic radicals would love to get their slimy mitts on the Pakistani nuclear stockpile or enabling nuclear technology. Just think: al Qaeda with the bomb...

* Indian-Pakistani peace: India and Pakistan have fought three wars since splitting in 1947 - two of them over the disputed, divided province of Kashmir. The province continues to be one of the world's most serious military flashpoints, with India and Pakistan almost coming to serious blows again in 1999 (Pakistan's incursion into Kashmir) and 2001/2 (a terrorist attack on the Indian parliament and Kashmiri Assembly.)

And since both nations are members of the nuclear club, they also share the dubious honor of being the two states most likely to engage in the world's first atomic exchange.

Recently, Musharraf seems to have had an epiphany of sorts about the counterproductiveness of Pakistan's insurgency (and terrorism) in Indian Kashmir, which dates back to 1989. He has agreed to start formal peace talks with Delhi next month - the third set of peace talks in 40 years. Expect hard-line Pakistani elements to do what they can to undermine the prospects of peace - and to shorten Musharraf 's life expectancy.

Gen. Musharraf is no choirboy, having deposed President Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless military coup in 1999. And, like earlier Pakistani leaders (and the Saudis), he made Faustian bargains with Islamic radicals that have now come back to haunt them. He must rid the ISI and the military of al Qaeda and Taliban supporters and clamp down on the Kashmiri extremists. This will be no walk in the park.

Islamabad must also address the madrassas (religious schools) that are mongering hate to young Pakistanis and a reported 16,000 foreign students, serving as a breeding ground for future jihadists. (Part of the problem is that Pakistan doesn't have anywhere near enough schools besides the madarassas.)

Not just the War at Terror, nuclear proliferation and peace on the South Asian subcontinent are at issue in Pakistan. So, too, is Musharraf 's regime. For the moment, he is the best hope for maintaining a secular, moderate Pakistan and prosecuting the War on Terror in that troubled part of the world.

Musharraf wants better relations with the United States. And a constructive, cooperative relationship with a secular Pakistan is in America's - and the world's - best interest.

But moving the US-Pakistani relationship from one of short-term necessity to long-term friendship should be based upon his government's ability to deliver on the critical issues of terrorism, nuclear nonproliferation and a lasting peace with India.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy

First appeared in the New York Post.