No Comment — September 11, 2007, 10:43 am

The Pakistan Conundrum

If you listen to the charlatans who regularly appear on American mass media as counterterrorism “experts”—you know, the ones who couldn’t explain the difference between a Sunni and a Shi’a Muslim, nor locate Waziristan on a map—you’ll hear them feverishly talk about the major centers of the terrorist threat. The litany will start with Iraq, and move quickly on to Iran and Syria. If you listen to those who actually have developed expertise in the area, however (and who rarely, if ever, make appearances on the media), you’ll see a quick focus on one country. It’s been called “America’s most important non-NATO ally,” and its leader is feted and received in the White House and makes an appearance on the “Daily Show.” It’s Pakistan.

Consider this:

  • We don’t have to fret over whether Pakistan has a nuclear arsenal and delivery system. There’s no doubt about it. It does. And it’s been the world’s best agent of proliferation for twenty years.

  • Today, on 9/11, every New Yorker asks: Where is Osama bin Laden, and why has he not been brought to justice? And the answer is: he is lounging comfortably in Pakistan, surrounded by friends and admirers.

  • Where have the Taliban been permitted to regroup, draw fresh recruits and launch attacks on NATO troops, including young Americans, in Afghanistan? In Pakistan, of course. Indeed, the Taliban is often seen as the brainchild of some key players in Pakistan’s military intelligence, the ISI, who continue to this day to maintain close relations with it.

  • Where has Al Qaeda itself been permitted safe harbor, been given facilities to conduct its operations, communicate with its various arms, raise fresh recruits, and plot its strategies of terror and mayhem? In Pakistan, of course.

In the meantime, what has American policy been towards Pakistan? For most of the last six years, a combination of confusion, restraint, and simply absence. Like the residence of the American ambassador in Islamabad–vacant. Remember Ambassador Crocker—he was on Capitol Hill testifying yesterday—about Iraq. He was sent to Baghdad, and when he went, the President said he was needed because it was the “front line of the war against Al Qaeda?” Nonsense. So the post which really was the front line of the war against Al Qaeda, Pakistan, was left vacant for months. If you wanted one act to summarize the stupidity and simple-mindedness of the Bush Administration’s counterterrorism policies, there’s a good one.

American policy towards Pakistan has been an unmitigated disaster. American omissions and misdirections have been a key reason for the resurgence of terrorist camps in Afghanistan and around the world.

More recently, thanks to one of the more thoughtful reassessments to come from Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. has replaced a ridiculously dysfunctional policy towards Pakistan with something that seems much more reasonable. But it may be a classic case of “too little, too late.”

You can look in despair for sensible analysis of the Pakistani situation in U.S. papers. Occasionally we get something in the New York Times from their widely-respected veteran, Carlotta Gall. And we have the far-too-infrequent contributions of the best writer on things Pakistani, Ahmed Rashid. To get the general lay of the land, you’ve got to track Rashid’s writings in the Daily Telegraph. So here’s the latest from today’s Telegraph:

Nawaz Sharif is not part of the American script for the war on terror and the future of Pakistan, written by mandarins in the US State Department. He is considered neither fish nor fowl, too close to the fundamentalist mullahs and too unpredictable. The real script is to save the beleaguered Gen Pervez Musharraf, and involves another former prime minister in exile – the fragrant Daughter of the East, Benazir Bhutto. When in a few weeks’ time she repeats yesterday’s homecoming saga from London, she will be welcomed by the very police that manhandled Mr Sharif and she will be allowed to lead a procession to her home town.

That is because the West is desperate to bring her and Gen Musharraf into a loveless marriage so that the general can combat the terrorists and the lady play democracy. This, they hope, can keep the crumbling edifice of military rule going for a few more years or at least until Osama bin Laden is winkled out of his home in the tribal regions of North and South Waziristan. And that is where the whole plan falls apart because in a country like Pakistan, a failing state hovering over the abyss, there are too many loose ends to tie up.

Now Barney Rubin tells us that those are some “loose ends.” “None other than every principle of legitimacy of the state in Pakistan.” U.S. policy has finally been brought to address this core vulnerability. But the follow-through is missing.

Rashid gives us a glimpse of just how badly things are still going internally in the war on terror, aside from the vaudeville of Pakistani politics:

Then there is the crumbling morale in the army. Two weeks ago US and Nato forces in Afghanistan were shocked to discover that 300 Pakistani soldiers – their erstwhile partners in the war on terrorism – had surrendered to the Taliban in Waziristan without firing a shot. Soldiers in the badlands controlled by the Taliban and al-Qa’eda are deserting or refusing to open fire. The White House is panic-stricken. That is because Gen Musharraf in his hubris has utterly failed to convince Pakistanis or the army that Pakistan has to fight not America’s war, but its own war against ever-expanding extremism.

On an important anniversary, 9/11, the attention of the American political community is focused on Iraq and the lingering chimera of an absurd vision that would have brought American democracy to the Middle East. This never had anything to do with counterterrorism. It was a distraction.

There is a real, severe, terrorism threat. Its heart lies in what Rashid calls the “Badlands” of Pakistan. And Bush and his team want to dish up to us Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Iran—anything but the real core of the threat. Today of all days they shouldn’t be permitted to get away with this con game.

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