Pakistan necessary evil in fighting

By Freedom Newspapers

The Pakistani government’s virtually inevitable assault on the Red Mosque in the middle of the capital city of Islamabad, which had been occupied by Taliban-oriented Islamist militants holding women and children as hostages, did not go nearly as smoothly and decisively as the military had anticipated.

Instead of being finished in an hour, as military spokesmen had hoped, it took more than a day, featuring intense building-to-building, room-to-room and sometimes hand-to-hand fighting in tunnels loaded with booby traps, hostages and well-armed, well-trained militants.

The government has acknowledged that at least eight army commandos and 60 radicals are dead, but suggested the death toll is likely to rise as bodies are discovered.

The danger is that instead of bolstering government control of the country, it could spark an overt Islamist uprising that could end up with the country’s nuclear weapons in unsavory hands.

Al-Qaida deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has already issued a video urging Pakistanis to wage jihad against their government. In the North-West Frontier Province bands of armed young men shut down a major highway. Religious leaders called for demonstrations elsewhere.

All this comes at a time when the grip of President Pervez Musharraf’s government has been slipping for a number of reasons. Musharraf, who cast his lot with the United States in the “war on terror” after 9/11, even though elements of his government had openly supported the Taliban in Afghanistan, has been criticized for firing the country’s chief justice. His term in office is due to expire, and many believe he plans to perpetuate himself in power by extra-constitutional (whatever that means in a Pakistani context) means.

Although Musharraf, who first took power in a military coup, has been anything but an ideal democrat, one can understand some of his difficulties. Thomas Henriksen, a senior fellow in foreign affairs, said Pakistan “may be the most difficult country in the world to govern.”

Some elements in Pakistan would prefer a secular government. But the country split from India when it gained independence from India specifically to provide a haven for Muslims. And the country is rife with radical Islamist sects that seek to make it a theocracy governed by an extremist, Taliban-like version of Islamist sharia law and sponsor radical madrassah schools that fill young peoples’ heads with dreams of jihad.

The country is majority Sunni, but there is a substantial minority of Shia who sympathize with Iran and Hezbollah and become active and sometimes violent when actions in other parts of the Muslim world affecting Shia (e.g., the Hezbollah-Israeli war last summer) break out.

The North-West provinces bordering Afghanistan, where most terrorism experts suspect Osama bin-Laden and other al-Qaida leaders are holed up, have never bowed to any central government. A Baluchi minority resents Islamabad. The army has generally been a reliable tool of government (and sometimes has been the government), but the secret intelligence service, ISI, is riddled with Taliban and al-Qaida sympathizers.

Insofar as the United States wants to take action to root out al-Qaida, it is important to maintain some relationship with Pakistan, and we have an interest in seeing to it that its nuclear weapons don’t fall into extremist hands.

This might (or might not) mean acknowledging that President Musharraf’s time as leader has passed and that other elements in the military will be more useful in imposing a modicum of stability (though its methods could be brutal).

In the long run the United States would do well to reduce its heavy involvement with unstable regimes like Pakistan, which has not been as essential in the “war on terror” as advertised. In the short run, however, few attractive options are available, and the U.S. could end up supporting yet another military dictatorship whose ability to impose stability might be limited.