Danger­ous gam­ble with an un­sta­ble nu­clear state

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

Even be­fore Pak­istani Pres­i­dent Pervez Mushar­raf’s res­ig­na­tion on Aug. 18, Pres­i­dent Bush cut loose his old ally in hopes that Pak­istan will end up a sta­ble demo­cratic ally like South Korea or the Philip­pines.

But Pak­istan also could go the way of Iran af­ter Pres­i­dent Jimmy Carter aban­doned the shah in 1979.

The stakes could not be higher. Pak­istan al­ready has nu­clear weapons. It is a cen­tral front in the war on ter­ror. And it is be­sieged by Is­lamic ex­trem­ists who al­ready have a se­cure op­er­at­ing base in the coun­try.

Mr. Mushar­raf, who seized power in a mil­i­tary coup in 1999, was Pres­i­dent Bush’s friend and anti-ter­ror­ist ally — rather like Philip­pine dic­ta­tor Fer­di­nand Mar­cos and South Korea’s Chun Doo-hwan were an­ti­com­mu­nist al­lies of Ron­ald Rea­gan.

In 1986, Mar­cos stole his last elec­tion and cre­ated a civic cri­sis. Rea­gan, in­flu­enced by thenAs­sis­tant Sec­re­tary of State Paul Wol­fowitz and his deputy, Scooter Libby, de­cided to aban­don Mar­cos and make a bet that democ­racy was a surer way to fight com­mu­nism. The bet paid off.

The fol­low­ing year, in South Korea, mil­i­tary rulers Chun and Roh Tae-woo gave way to pop­u­lar de­mands for demo­cratic elec- tions. Rea­gan sup­ported the move af­ter the fact, but it was driven more by the threat that Korea would lose the 1988 Olympics. But that bet on democ­racy paid off mag­nif­i­cently, too.

Now, Pres­i­dent Bush is mak­ing a sim­i­lar wa­ger in Pak­istan. There’s not much else he could have done, given Mr. Mushar­raf’s un­pop­u­lar­ity, and Mr. Bush did it re­luc­tantly. First, he tried to or­ga­nize a power-shar­ing ar­range­ment leav­ing Mr. Mushar­raf in the pres­i­dency while a new demo­cratic coali­tion ran the gov­ern­ment. Now that doesn’t mat­ter, as the two rul­ing par­ties have won Mr. Mushar­raf’s ouster by forc­ing his res­ig­na­tion.

In June, the White House an­nounced Mr. Bush had spo­ken on the phone with Mr. Mushar­raf and urged him to stay in the pres­i­dency. Two weeks ago, with his po­si­tion crum­bling, Mr. Mushar­raf tried to call Mr. Bush at least twice, ac­cord­ing to Pak­istani sources. Mr. Bush did not take the calls.

It’s a good sign that when Mr. Mushar­raf asked Pak­istan’s army chief of staff, Ash­faq Kiyani, to sup­port his ef­fort to stay in power, Gen. Kiyani said the army would stay out of pol­i­tics.

Mr. Mushar­raf’s ad­ver­saries feared he would use con­sti­tu­tional au­thor­ity he gave him­self in his hey­day to top­ple the elected gov­ern­ment — which would have pro­voked pop­u­lar un­rest and might have put the army in the po­si­tion of hav­ing to fire on the pop­u­la­tion. Gen. Kiyani, in ef­fect, told Mr. Mushar­raf not to take that op­tion.

With Mr. Mushar­raf gone, the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion is try­ing to se­cure guar­an­tees from the leaders of the two op­po­si­tion par­ties that Mr. Mushar­raf will not be crim­i­nally pros­e­cuted.

Asif Ali Zar­dari of the Pak­istan Peo­ples Party, hus­band of the PPP’s as­sas­si­nated leader, Be­nazir Bhutto, has been will­ing to make such a deal. Nawaz Sharif of the Pak­istani Mus­lim League has been de­mand­ing the jail­ing of Mr. Mushar­raf but re­port­edly has re­lented.

Mr. Zar­dari is ex­pected to as­sume the pres­i­dency. Then comes the real test of whether this demo­cratic bet is pay­ing off — or whether Pak­istan will go the way of Iran.

In that case, the shah had in­curred the ha­tred of both Is­lamic rad­i­cals and sec­u­lar democrats for run­ning a cor­rupt and bru­tal regime. The United States was a tar­get of re­sent­ment, too — much as it is in Pak­istan — be­cause of its un­wa­ver­ing sup­port for the shah.

In 1979, when mas­sive demon­stra­tions brought on Iran’s mo­ment of truth, the army de­clined to fire on the pop­u­la­tion. The Carter ad­min­is­tra­tion with­drew sup­port from the shah while of­fer­ing him asy­lum, and a rev­o­lu­tion­ary regime took power.

Un­for­tu­nately, that regime still rules — with rad­i­cal Shi’ite Is­lam and ha­tred for the United States as its guid­ing prin­ci­ples. It is now de­vel­op­ing nu­clear weapons and aids anti-U.S. and rad­i­cal Is­lamic move­ments all over the Mideast.

Which fu­ture Pak­istan will fol­low largely de­pends on whether Mr. Zar­dari and Mr. Sharif can gov­ern ef­fec­tively — inflation is run­ning at more than 20 per­cent, and un­em­ploy­ment is mount­ing — and de­feat in­creas­ingly ag­gres­sive Is­lamic ex­trem­ists, some aided by Pak­istan’s own in­tel­li­gence ser­vice.

Four past tries at democ­racy failed. Mrs. Bhutto served as prime min­is­ter from 1988 to 1990 and from 1993 to 1996, and Mr. Sharif also served twice, be­fore be­ing top­pled by Mr. Mushar­raf. Mr. Zar­dari and Mr. Sharif are now coali­tion part­ners but are still ri­vals.

Their gov­ern­ment made one abortive at­tempt at ne­go­ti­at­ing with ter­ror­ist-linked tribal chiefs. Now, partly at U.S. prod­ding, the army is bat­tling the Tal­iban, al Qaeda and al­lied ex­trem­ists near the bor­der with Afghanistan.

Two weeks ago, al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader, Ay­man al-Zawahri, de­clared war on the en­tire lead­er­ship of Pak­istan, ac­cus­ing it of “ap­peas­ing [. . .] the mod­ern-day cru­saders in the White House.”

A top CIA coun­tert­er­ror­ism ex­pert, Ted Gis­taro, told a Wash­ing­ton gath­er­ing last week that al Qaeda “now has [in Pak­istan] many of the op­er­a­tional and or­ga­ni­za­tional ad­van­tages it once en­joyed across the bor­der in Afghanistan” be­fore 1981 and can use them to train ter­ror­ists for world­wide at­tacks.

Con­ceiv­ably, if demo­cratic gov­ern­ment were to fail again in Pak­istan, the mil­i­tary would again take over and con­tinue the an­titer­ror­ist strug­gle. But there’s also a dan­ger that a pro-Is­lamic gen­eral would seize power.

But, as Pak­istani Prime Min­is­ter Yousuf Raza Gi­lani said on his visit to Wash­ing­ton last month, democrats have ev­ery in­cen­tive to fight ter­ror­ism, too, wag­ing “Be­nazir Bhutto‘s war.” Is­lamic rad­i­cals are be­lieved to have as­sas­si­nated her — with help from el­e­ments of Pak­istani in­tel­li­gence.

Mr. Bush, as an ad­vo­cate of democ­racy, has placed the only bet he could have in Pak­istan. Now, it’s in­cum­bent upon him — and his suc­ces­sor — to do ev­ery­thing to en­sure it pays off.

Mor­ton Kon­dracke is a na­tion­ally syndicated colum­nist.

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