A stable Pakistan is in Israel’s interests, too
IT IS A nightmare scenario. A fervently Islamic country is equipped with a nuclear arsenal; al Qaeda cells flourish in its cities; its population slips towards fundamentalism and its military leader’s iron grip is clearly weakening. This is the incendiary situation currently unfolding in Pakistan. While Israel’s security fears more usually focus on Iran, the position of its eastern neighbour Pakistan — where General Pervez Musharraf has declared a state of emergency to combat an “unprecedented level” of terrorist threat — should also be of acute concern.
Strategically vital, its border with Afghanistan rife with ever-more-daring pro-Taliban forces, Pakistan also has a cache of some 50 nuclear missiles.
Its importance in the “war on terror” has made Musharraf, who seized power in 1999, a key Western ally. Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, he has received $10 billion (£5bn) in aid from the US, and Britain will hand him £480m over the next three years.
This cosiness has even extended to dialogue with Israel. In September 2005, following the Gaza disengagement, Silvan Shalom became the first-ever Israeli Foreign Minister to hold public talks with his Pakistani counterpart.
“It was very positive,” Shalom tells the JC now, “and we thought that at the end of the process there would be some kind of diplomatic interaction.”
Apart from one follow-up, however, contacts found- ered — perhaps because, as Shalom points out acidly, his successor declined to pursue them. It could also be because such overtures were distinctly unwelcome in Pakistan. Popular sentiment towards Israel can be gauged from the reaction to an innocuous January 2005 interview with Shimon Peres in a Pakistani newspaper. The very next day, a furious mob wrecked the offices of the offending paper.
Pakistani moderates may see benefits in talking to Jerusalem, not least because of Israel’s military ties to their arch-rival, India. “Musharraf also sees Israel as a conduit to the US,” adds Professor Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies.
But moderates are definitely in the minority. Even Musharraf has found it near-impossible to control vast sections of the country.
“Al Qaeda thrives in ungoverned spaces, and the most obvious are the tribal autonomous regions such as Waziristan,” says Alexander Neill, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute think tank. Clashes, such as the Red Mosque siege earlier this year, have been bloody and severe.
While the risk of jihadi outlaws seizing nuclear weapons is virtually nil — “if military control were to break down, I am without a doubt that the US has a contingency plan [to protect the installations],” says Neill — a more serious threat comes from the military itself.
Although theoretically under Musharraf’s control, significant elements are sympathetic to — or directly linked with — extremist groups. There are precedents for a lack of confidence in Pakistan’s nuclear security. The disgraced nuclear engineer Abdul Qadeer Khan transferred technology to Iran, Libya, North Korea — and, some say, even Syria. The official line is that the government remained unaware of Khan’s activities until 2003, but it seems highly likely that, as well as official collusion, he benefited from considerable military logistical help.
“It’s very serious,” emphasises Shalom. “If the leadership moves towards the hands of the extremists, it will be very dangerous, for Israel and for the whole world.”
Unfortunately, though, the terror threat makes a convenient alibi for authoritarian rule. The state of emergency has meant thousands arrested, judges sacked, political rallies outlawed and independent media banned.
The uncomfortable truth is that realpolitik wins over human rights. “Our interest is in stability, like that of Britain and the US,” says Inbar. “We understand the fact that democracy cannot be so easily installed.”
Indeed, following the Iraq debacle and Hamas’s election triumph, it has become unfashionable to believe that democracy can combat extremism. In Pakistan as elsewhere, few are now willing to consider that support for human rights, the rule of law and democratic elections might bring longer-term stability to a simmering population than the imposition of military rule.
Daniella Peled is the JC’s Foreign Editor