January 9, 2008

January 9, 2008 | Commentary on Middle East

The Pakistan problem

Perhaps no word better describes Pakistan today than "uncertainty." From questions about the security of its nuclear arsenal to its political turmoil, from the resurgence of the Taliban and al-Qaida to its trying relations with India, the moniker fits.

Indeed, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in his national address Nov. 3, following his decision to suspend the constitution and declare a state of emergency, said: "Pakistan is at the brink of a very dangerous situation."

Truer words were, perhaps, never spoken.

Political Potholes

Although Musharraf was peacefully sworn in as president for a second five-year term in late November, after taking off his second hat as army chief, there is good reason to question whether he will be able to rule -- or if he even will complete another term.

Ignoring outside counsel, Musharraf imposed emergency rule in Pakistan in early November, citing growing militancy. The decision plunged the country into crisis and support for Musharraf to new depths. Critics charge Musharraf wanted to neuter an adversarial Supreme Court, fearing it would invalidate his Oct. 6 election. They were probably right, considering Musharraf's previous donnybrook with the judiciary in March.

But emergency rule is only one aspect of the immense political tensions in Pakistan: Enter former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, who both returned to Pakistan this fall from exile following Musharraf's 1999 bloodless coup. Both intend to make a run for the prime minister's post in the January polls if emergency rule is lifted, ostensibly allowing for free and fair elections. Whether either would cooperate with Musharraf -- or one another -- isn't quite clear.

Elections in January will bring new leadership to the prime minister's job, an office that shares power with the presidency in Pakistan's political system. Indeed, in the past, Pakistan's prime minister was frequently more powerful than the president.

So what if Musharraf isn't calling the shots after the polls?

For American interests, the answer is unclear. Many see Bhutto, the leader of the Pakistan People's Party, as a pro-West secularist who will promote democracy and human rights, battle extremism and terrorism, and keep peace in the region. Indeed, the U.S. even helped broker her return from self-exile in October and tried to foster a power-sharing arrangement between her and the general. Emergency rule may now have killed any prospect of political cooperation between the two.

But what about Sharif? The former prime minister, who accepted a 10-year exile in exchange for the dropping of corruption and conspiracy charges, returned to Pakistan in November against Musharraf's wishes. Sharif first tried to return to Pakistan in September but was never allowed to leave his aircraft at the Islamabad airport, then was sent ignominiously back into exile in Saudi Arabia. But Sharif was able to persuade the Saudi regime to support his return, despite a Musharraf visit to the kingdom to intervene. If Sharif's star rises, Riyadh could have significant influence in Islamabad with the man who was at the helm when Pakistan joined the nuclear club in 1998.

Sharif is seen as much closer to Saudi Arabia's position on the political aspects of Islam, and he could turn into a strategic asset for Riyadh in its dealings with an increasingly confident, and possibly nuclear, Tehran -- Saudi Arabia's biggest nightmare. Some U.S. experts are concerned that Sharif, as leader of the Pakistan Muslim League, is close to Pakistani Islamist parties and could be soft on radicalism, especially the Taliban. These ties also might reverse growth-fostering economic reforms. With plenty of bad blood with Washington from his days as prime minister, it's also likely Sharif won't be as pro-U.S. as Musharraf or Bhutto. He's likely none too pleased by the White House's embrace of the man who overthrew him.

Loose Nukes

Besides politics, what about other U.S. national security interests?

The Pakistanis insist that their nuclear arsenal, of at least 50 to 100 nuclear weapons, is safely under lock and key. Indeed, considering the $100 million in assistance from Washington, Musharraf may have the situation in hand. Experts assert the program is under the Pakistani military's control, uses permissive action links, keeps nuclear cores and detonators -- as well as warheads and delivery vehicles -- apart, and requires two-man authentication, reducing the likelihood of unauthorized launches.

But although all of this is reassuring, one can't help but be haunted by the ghost of A.Q. Khan, father of the Pakistani bomb, and his now-infamous assistance to the likes of Iran, North Korea, Libya and perhaps others, too. For instance, it's now being posited that Khan's cohorts also may have had substantive contact with Syria, based on Israel's September strike on a suspected nuclear facility near the Turkish border.

More disturbing, some Pakistani nuclear scientists reportedly had contact with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida in Afghanistan in the days before Sept. 11, 2001. These scientists are believed to be in custody today.

But with Pakistan's nuclear weapons industry active at some 12 facilities, the concern of nuclear know-how and material proliferating beyond their walls is real, even with recently instituted background checks.

Taliban Trouble

The past year has been the deadliest since the Taliban regime fell in late 2001. So far, more than 250 soldiers from U.S., coalition and NATO-led forces have fallen in Afghanistan.

Although the ability of Taliban fighters to find refuge in the tribal areas of Pakistan hasn't helped the fight in Afghanistan, the turmoil in Pakistani politics, which could prove to be a distraction, won't improve the situation, either. A leaked National Security Council document says that although coalition troops have been successful in individual military battles against the Taliban, the militants still appear to be able to recruit large numbers of fighters, many from Pakistan's Pashtun tribes.

This year also has proved the worst year for suicide bombings in Afghan history. More than 140 suicide bombings were carried out by extremists, killing hundreds of Afghan civilians in 2007. According to the United Nations' mission in Afghanistan, the recruitment of suicide bombers reaches into the tribal areas of Pakistan. Pakistani madrassas -- religious schools -- appear to be a major source of these bombers. Of course, Pakistani and Afghan authorities, especially Musharraf and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, have repeatedly pointed the finger at each other for failing to prevent cross-border attacks by Taliban militants. But one thing is clear: The problem won't be resolved as long as both sides remain in a state of denial about the Taliban problem -- which has roots in both countries -- and, instead, keep blaming each other.

Al-Qaida Angst

Pakistan's tribal areas are also the home to the most robust element of post-9/11 al-Qaida, which has vowed for months to bring down the Musharraf government, and also to take its jihad abroad to Europe -- and the U.S.

Indeed, intelligence agencies have been tracking Europeans heading for Pakistan in preparation for missions in the West. European passports allow easy access to Western countries, resulting in attacks such as the 7/7 London bombings in 2005. Not surprisingly, the U.S. intelligence community's best estimates place al-Qaida's bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, not in Afghanistan but in the tribal areas of Pakistan along the Pakistani-Afghan border.

Calling on European governments to abandon the fight in Afghanistan, bin Laden issued one of his rare videos in late November -- the latest in an increasing number of audio and video messages produced by al-Qaida's al-Sahab media outfit. Al-Sahab has issued more than 90 messages this year -- double the number in 2006. Some speculate that the step-up in al-Qaida communications is a disturbing sign of how secure the group's leadership feels in Pakistan's frontier region. This, unfortunately, coincides with a notable lack of al-Qaida operatives killed or captured recently in Pakistan, despite what is reportedly a treasure trove of actionable intelligence passed on to Pakistani intelligence and security forces. In fairness, it should be noted that a large number -- indeed, hundreds -- of al-Qaida operatives, including senior 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, have been captured in Pakistan since 9/11. Some analysts believe this shortcoming has more to do with a lack of Pakistani political resolve and the military's unwillingness to act against fellow Muslims than the ability of these extremists to evade Pakistani forces.

India Issues

Although Pakistan seems to be swimming in a sea of chaos with its political problems and the challenges of al-Qaida and the Taliban, its future relationship with its rival and nuclear neighbor, India, cannot be ignored. Even though relations between Islamabad and New Delhi have been relatively stable in recent years, even improved, India has no interest in seeing jihadis of any sort -- al-Qaida, Taliban or Kashmiri -- take over Pakistan, especially while Kashmir remains unresolved.

Kashmir, a land both Pakistan and India have claimed since their birth in 1947, contains the seeds of conflict that has the potential for escalation, especially in light of India's superior conventional forces. Representative of this concern, as chief of the army, Musharraf led the 1999 border clash with India at Kargil in an ill-advised land grab. Sharif tried to fire Musharraf over the disaster, leading to the general's coup against the former prime minister. More troubling, as president, Musharraf allowed tensions to rise to the boiling point with India in 2002, which some believe might have led both countries to look into the nuclear abyss if not for American diplomatic intervention.

A country such as Pakistan -- the world's second most populous Muslim nation, which shares borders with India, China, Afghanistan and Iran -- is of unquestionable strategic importance to American interests. Not to mention, Pakistan's location near the mouth of the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf is significant for issues of energy security. And one can't ignore the fact that 50 percent to 75 percent of U.S. supplies for Afghanistan fly over, or go through, Pakistan.

The challenge for the U.S. will be to successfully manage this relationship, which won't be easy but is critical to American homeland security, the battle against radicalism, fighting terrorism, nuclear nonproliferation and stability in South Asia.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and former US deputy assistant secretary of defense.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in Armed Forces Journal