Pervez Musharraf hasn’t exactly been America’s most dependable ally. But in a region seething with anti-Americanism and hostility against the “war on terror,” the Pakistani president’s open support for Washington has been pretty remarkable. Facing intense public disapproval in the world’s second-most-populous Muslim country, he has allowed the United States to conduct military operations and air strikes against terrorist targets in Pakistan and provided intelligence and operational assistance. For his efforts, the U.S. looked past his warts—and awarded his country with billions of dollars.
But as of right about now, this alliance is in serious jeopardy.
For the U.S.—and all those not interested in the Taliban taking back control of Afghanistan—this is bad, bad news. For anyone not excited to see nuclear weapons in the hands of Muslim extremists, it rings a warning alarm.
Pakistanis, on the other hand, are ecstatic. In elections on February 18, they dealt a deadly blow to Musharraf by empowering a collection of opposition parties—parties that have since formed a coalition government which promises to restore Pakistan to being a parliamentary democracy. Musharraf’s political opponents are in charge now.
Musharraf himself is calling this the start of a “real democratic era” in his country. Being as how the alliance with Washington only existed because of an autocratic military leader’s willingness to defy the public, this means one thing: America’s need for an ally in Pakistan has smacked headlong into a brick wall of hostile Pakistanis.
Officials are vocally expressing their right to make judgments independent of Washington. In April, Pakistan’s foreign minister made clear that no foreign forces will be permitted to operate on Pakistani soil. U.S. officials, fully aware of the dangers fomenting within Pakistan’s borders, are on the knife’s edge, watching for how Islamabad will confront these dangers. They have good cause to be nervous.
Many observers are noting the far greater complexity that will accompany this “real democratic era.” Musharraf alone ruled everything. By contrast, the new prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, will have to balance competing elements within his coalition against Musharraf (who will remain president) and the Pakistani Army—all while paying heed to the wishes of his people and, to whatever degree he chooses, to those of the U.S. That is quite the tangled political snarl. The White House used to be able to make its requests known with a single phone call to a sympathetic and powerful ear. No longer.
This loss of U.S. influence in volatile Pakistan makes the new prime minister’s strategies for securing his nation incredibly important. Early indications are, those strategies give further cause for concern.
Gilani, while acknowledging the seriousness of the threat of Islamist extremism in his country, advocates addressing it through non-violent means. He proposes to combat radicals primarily through political and economic changes in tribal areas, including better education and more financial aid. He seeks peace with the Taliban. “We are ready to talk to all those people who give up arms and are ready to embrace peace,” he has said. He shouldn’t hold his breath.
The Pakistani Taliban praised Gilani’s gesture, but then laid out its own condition for a dialogue: that the prime minister sever ties with Washington. Our jihad is with America, the Taliban commander, Maulvi Faqir, said, but we’ll fight this government too as long as it remains an ally of the U.S. Chances are, this ultimatum won’t dissuade Gilani from trying to sweet-talk the Taliban into giving up its weapons.
One coalition leader announced that the government will pull out of a district in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province where the military has been battling Islamic warriors since November. The New York Times reported that it wants “sustained dialogue that, it hopes, will answer many grievances with the government that have pushed ethnic groups toward the militants” (March 26). What pushes people toward the militants? Grievances with the government? In truth, what pushes people toward the militants is the militants—who aggressively promote their violent anti-Western ideals through every possible means.
Pakistan is a world-renowned incubator of Islamism. Huge swaths of the country are ruled independently by Islamists. The more fragmented, disunited and gridlocked the government becomes, the stronger the Islamists grow.
This change in government could seriously cripple efforts in the “war on terror.” First, there is the prospect of Pakistan’s status as a haven for terrorism to grow. Also, the success of allied efforts in Afghanistan depends in large measure on the ability to seal that nation’s border with Pakistan; that will be far more difficult now.
But beyond these implications is the most dangerous trump card of all. As editor in chief Gerald Flurry wrote in our January issue, “Pakistan also has the nuclear bomb and could be taken over by radical Islam, with plenty of help from Iran. That means it could become a proxy of the Iranian mullahs. This would be the worst possible disaster!” •