The blame game surrounding the 9/11 Commission hearings and the developing situation in Iraq has overshadowed serious analysis of a crucial country in the U.S.-led war on terror: Pakistan. While the Bush Administration has portrayed Pakistan as part of the solution in the war on terror, it might also be part of the problem.
Indeed, the most urgent threat to U.S. national security in the past few years was not Saddam's Iraq, but Musharraf's Pakistan. Consider only that Al-Qaeda was founded there; that Pakistan continues to provide safe haven to hundreds of Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters; that its fundamentalist madrasas are flourishing; and, most disturbingly, that Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons, which, as the A.Q. Khan scandal has shockingly revealed, are not as "leak-proof" as Musharraf continues to insist.
Moreover, members of Pakistan's powerful secret service, the ISI, have ties to Islamist fundamentalist groups, including Al-Qaeda. We know, for example, that General Ahmad Mahmood, the chief of the Pakistani secret services at the time of the 9/11 attacks, helped finance them by asking one of his subordinates to transfer $100,000 to hijacker Mohammed Atta. Although Mahmood has been forced to retire under pressure of the U.S. government, he remains a free man, and the Pakistani government does not seem eager to investigate his involvement in the attacks any further.
Furthermore, there is strong evidence that members of Pakistan's nuclear establishment are ardent adherents to the Islamist cause. Some of Pakistan's leading nuclear scientists, as well as A.Q. Khan, intimated that the bomb is not just meant to protect Pakistan's national borders but the entire Islamic world. The New York Times recently reported that a senior Pakistani politician recently quoted Khan as saying that "giving technology to a Muslim country was not a crime." Indeed, the bomb in Pakistan has become a religious icon, with editorials in Islamist newspapers praising the bomb as a blessing from God. In December 2001, the CIA confirmed that two of Pakistan's top nuclear scientists and direct subordinates of A.Q. Khan had met with Osama bin Laden in Kabul in August of the same year. The Pakistani government has questioned, but never prosecuted the scientists.
Musharraf's role in A.Q. Khan's black market operations remains dubious to say the least. Considering that Pakistani nuclear scientists are being closely monitored by the country's police and military intelligence services, it is inconceivable that Pakistani scientists could have met with members of Al-Qaeda and foreign government officials without acquiescence from the top. Recently, Massoud Ansari reported in The New Republic that A.Q. Khan's daughter, Dina, is in possession of documents and audiotapes that provide evidence that Musharraf and senior army officials had known about A.Q. Khan's nuclear proliferation activities for years. So much for America's ally Pakistan.
Back in Washington, the Bush Administration so far has been very protective of the Musharraf government. Of course, Bush's relative silence on the matter may be due to domestic concerns. Keeping a lid on the danger of a vital "ally" to international security is in the interest of the Bush reelection team. After all, the A. Q. Khan scandal has revealed that members of the Pakistani military establishment have traded nuclear secrets to countries belonging to "axis of evil" countries-and perhaps even to Al-Qaeda itself. In other words, Pakistan's key role in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction provides Bush's opponents with another angle from which to criticize the war in Iraq as having been not only an unnecessary and costly distraction from the war on terror, but also a dangerous one.
A more pressing reason the Bush Administration is being protective of the Musharraf government is that Washington needs Islamabad's cooperation to track down Bin Laden. Also, the Bush Administration seems to be taking a similar tack as with Russia: be silent in public and critical in private. In return, it appears that Pakistan has begun to share some of its extensive knowledge of the workings of Al-Qaeda and to assert much tighter control over its nuclear program and export activities. For perfectly realist reasons, then, a more confrontational attitude with Pakistan simply is not advisable. Besides, it does not fit into Bush's reelection strategy.
But the Bush Administration still needs to ensure that Musharraf fulfills his promise to purge the ISI and the military of radical Islamist elements. Granted, Musharraf has dismissed some of the more notorious key figures in the ISI in the aftermath of 9/11 (although nominally "retired" generals-such as the fiercely anti-American former head of the ISI, Hamid Gul-may still be exerting their influence over the services from the privacy of their homes). Moreover, Musharraf has so far failed to extend his Islamist purges down to the lower ranks of the secret services, and it appears that Islamist infiltration in the lower ranks of these organs of state power is the front through which Islamists control much of Pakistan. In a way, this is good news, believes Marin J. Strmecki, currently of the Smith Richardson Foundation, for it means that radical Islamism today is much more widespread among members of the ISI than it is among the Pakistani population at large.
Similarly, Stephen Cohen, of the Brookings Institution, suggests that the United States has no other choice but to work with the Pakistani government and try to wean it away from supporting Islamist extremists. At the same time, Cohen suggests that the United States undertake other measures to lower the possibility for an Islamist take-over of the Pakistani government and the country's nuclear arsenal. For example, America's active support of a serious peace effort to solve the country's dispute over Indian-controlled Kashmir might take away the raison d'être of some of Pakistan's fundamentalist terrorist groups.
It is in the national security interest of the United States to help turn Pakistan into something resembling a representative secular society. For example, Washington could invest in Pakistan's public education system so as to provide an alternative to the madrasas that many of Pakistan's poor end up attending for lack of alternatives. Also, the United States should take the lead in providing tangible economic incentives for Musharraf to loosen restrictions on moderate political parties while allowing him to crack down on those Islamist groups that publicly advocate terrorism.
The problem is that Musharraf has been unwilling to loosen his grip on power. During the 2002 parliamentary elections, for example, Musharraf did everything he could to weaken the power of the more secular Pakistan People's Party (PPP) led by Benazir Bhutto. By undermining those parties but not the fundamentalist ones, he strengthened the latter grouping's standing in parliament to the point where he must rely increasingly on their support to stay in power. This, of course, makes it difficult for Musharraf to crack down on radical Islamists. Although the Bush Administration keeps insisting that it needs to work with Musharraf because the alternatives would be worse, it cannot mean that, in the age of "a balance of power that favors freedom", the United States has uncritically tolerate Musharraf's increasingly authoritarian traits.
Washington needs to ensure that Pakistan is being put back on a more democratic political path. This will vastly increase the chances that his successor will be more to America's liking. Indeed, this country's stake in the future development of Pakistan is enormously high. Washington is well-advised to make the creation of a stable and moderate Pakistani government with tight control over its nuclear installations and scientists a top-priority. The consequences of failure are cataclysmic. As former Senator Sam Nunn wrote in the Washington Post in October 2001, "[today] we find ourselves in a new arms race. Terrorists are racing to get weapons of mass destruction; we ought to be racing to stop them." Failure is not an option.
Sara Kupfer is a free-lance journalist based in Washington, DC.