Pakistan is indeed a key ally in the fight against terror. It is also a nuclear power. What if the shaky Musharraf regime falls to radicals? Pakistani ministers are already saying that Jews are behind 9/11 and making disparaging remarks about the United States.
August 26, 2007 No. 28
Radical Islamism in Pakistan
Since July 11, when the Pakistani Army took over the Red Mosque in Islamabad and released the hostages being held there, the violent confrontation between the regime and radical Islamists has only escalated. That confrontation, which claimed many lives in the 1980s, revived after September 11 due to enhanced cooperation between the Pakistani government and the United States. It now undermines the foundations of the political system in the country, at a moment when the regime seems particularly vulnerable. For several months, Pakistan has been shaken by a revitalized al-Qaeda movement operating in the northwestern tribal areas and, simultaneously, by growing liberal opposition to President Pervaiz Musharraf following his attempt to sack the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and his refusal to comply with the constitution and resign as army Chief of Staff.
Immediately after the attack on the Twin Towers, the United States asked Musharraf for support it in its war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Notwithstanding his reservations, Musharraf felt obliged to comply, and since 2002, the Pakistani Army has been operating, with varying degrees of commitment and effectiveness, against Islamist groups in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area. From the American perspective, Pakistan was a natural and important ally in the war in Afghanistan. It is one of the largest Muslim countries (about 165 million people), mostly Sunni with a Shi'ite minority. The regime, though defined constitutionally as Muslim, is fairly moderate, and the army plays a major role in it.
Pakistan's enlistment in the struggle against Islamist terrorist is of paramount importance. First of all, Pakistan borders on al-Qaeda refuges and constitutes a geographical barrier between Iran and Afghanistan, on the one hand, and India, on the other; the latter is itself struggling against militant Islamist groups in Kashmir. Secondly, given Pakistan's demonstrated nuclear capabilities, any takeover of the regime by radical Islamists would be an extremely grave matter. Given Pakistan's history of proliferating nuclear technologies and the ambitions of some Arab states to acquire nuclear capabilities, such a development could accelerate the nuclearization of the Middle East. Thirdly, the endemic political instability elsewhere in Central Asia, coupled with the relatively moderate regime in Pakistan and the long history of cooperation with the United States, mean that Pakistan is the only Muslim country in the region on which Washington can count.
From Musharraf's perspective, cooperation with the United States also provides some benefits. First of all, it enhances the international legitimacy of his regime, which had been burdened by a negative image since he seized power in 1999. Moreover, by lining up with the Americans against extremist Islamic terrorism, he can ease the confrontational relationship with India, which had deteriorated very badly following the 1998 nuclear tests by the two sides and the Pakistani attack on the Kargil region soon afterward.
At the same time, the alliance with the United States also poses some serious problems. While the regime has no ideological commitment to Islamism, almost all of the population is Muslim in fact, Pakistan was explicitly founded as a Muslim state and the country is tightly bound to the Muslim world. It adheres to Muslim political positions (to the extent that they exist), such as the refusal to maintain ties with Israel, and it takes an active part in Arab and Islamic organizations. Moreover, its economy is dependent on trade with, remittances from and investment by Muslim states (especially in the Persian Gulf). Consequently, its alignment with the United States against the Taliban provoked serious internal disagreements.
The totality of these circumstances and constraints explains the current developments in Pakistan. Musharraf is exposed to domestic pressures by both Islamist movements and liberal elements. The former are stepping up their confrontation with the army, and al-Qaeda elements are apparently consolidating their stronghold in the tribal areas of the northwest; the latter are outraged at Musharraf's actions against the Supreme Court and his defiance of the constitution. Musharraf is also being subjected to significant pressure by the United States, which is unhappy with the anti-democratic measures apparently taken to bolster his declining position (e.g., nationalization of the electronic media) and charges that his regime does too little to seek out al-Qaeda leaders hiding out in the areas bordering Afghanistan.
Pakistan poses a dilemma for the United States, which wants to support an ally in the war on terror while encouraging the emergence of a stable democracy. In a state in which the army has taken power several times and whose current ruler came to power in a military coup, there can be no certainty that the same thing will not happen again if the situation continues to deteriorate. Moreover, some analyses suggest that Islamist tendencies in army ranks have grown stronger in recent years and that the restraint in fighting al-Qaeda in the tribal areas stems from the army's dissatisfaction with a proactive policy imposed on Pakistan by the United States. In other words, the ability of the United States to secure Pakistani alignment with American policy depends on the existence of a regime that can impose its authority on the army.
Notwithstanding the challenges, several things suggest that this might continue to be the case. First of all, the Pakistani army is immeasurably larger and more powerful than the Islamist movements. Secondly, Islamist extremism -- a common threat to Pakistan, China and India strengthens the interest of the latter two in supporting a semi-secular regime in Pakistan and damps down the ferocity of the Indo-Pakistani conflict. Thirdly, Musharraf is apparently making some progress on forging a coalition with the moderate opposition parties and he is reported to be negotiating with Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister and now one of the liberal opposition leaders, on power sharing arrangements in advance of the forthcoming elections.
Pakistan's importance in the struggle against Islamist extremism is hard to exaggerate. The overthrow of the current regime by Islamist forces could give extremists access to nuclear weapons and seriously impair America's ability to combat al-Qaeda. For Israel, the implications could include the accelerated seepage of nuclear technology to hostile regimes and movements and upgraded capabilities for al-Qaeda and other extremist organizations. Preventing that depends on the ability of a moderate Pakistani regime to impose its authority on extremist elements, both in the army and in the broader society.
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