By: Irfan Hussain
With President Pervez Musharraf having lifted the state of emergency in Pakistan, there must be sighs of relief in the United States and Israel. The state of emergency was imposed when Musharraf pre-empted an expected verdict against his re-election on November 3, against a backdrop of mounting concern over the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.
Over the last eight years he has been in power, Musharraf has come to be viewed as a reliable figure in Western capitals, a "safe pair of hands." Despite the resurgence of the Taliban and the increasing potency of the threat that movement's Pakistani supporters pose in the northwest of Pakistan, the international community was more or less comfortable with Musharraf in charge. As long as he was around, went the received wisdom, Pakistan's nuclear assets were safe.
Musharraf's problems - most of them self-inflicted - began piling up after March 9, when he tried to remove the stubbornly independent chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry. This generated serious concern in Washington and other world capitals. Although instability in Pakistan would strengthen the extremists, the more pressing worry was the possibility of nuclear warheads and related material falling into Al-Qaeda's hands.
When the Pakistani Army was constructing facilities to store and conceal components of its nuclear arsenal, it located these sites away from the Indian border, in the northwest of the country. These are the very areas where the extremists are now gaining in strength. And although the arsenal's location remains a closely guarded secret, there is a worry that Al-Qaeda might have supporters in the ranks of the Pakistani military. It is common knowledge that both the defense establishment and the intelligence community in Pakistan have been infiltrated by Taliban sympathizers. These fears have been compounded by the country's history of proliferation and the covert help A.Q. Khan, the disgraced nuclear scientist, must have received from the military.
In the worst-case scenario in which a Pakistani nuclear device does fall into the wrong hands, Israel would almost certainly be a prime target. Frustrated by the enormous technological edge enjoyed by the Israeli armed forces, Israel's enemies would dearly love to get their hands on an equalizer. In all probability, they would be unwilling to take the risk of trying to smuggle the device into the US, so Israel would do fine as the next best target.
In much of the Muslim world, Israel is seen as an extension of the US. Indeed, regarding all hostile American policies that concern Muslim countries the prevailing view is that it is a case of the tail wagging the dog. Thus, an attack on Israel would be viewed, especially in jihadist circles, as a blow against the hated Americans.
As Pakistan has been progressively destabilized through a combination of military rule and the rise of religious extremism, another concern is the emergence of vast tracts in the turbulent tribal areas as safe havens for Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. With the weakening of the state's writ in these rugged badlands, the grip of terrorists has tightened.
With more training camps being established in these areas, an expansion of the global jihad can be expected. Western as well as Israeli targets would be at risk. Indeed, the biggest danger is the emergence of a nascent Greater Pashtunistan where Pashtun tribesmen on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghan border who have traditionally supported the Taliban will gain autonomy.
Another area in which Musharraf's support would be needed is Iran. Should there be an American decision to attack Iran or its nuclear facilities, Pakistan's long common border would be crucial to the success of such a campaign. Although Pakistan's participation would be kept secret due to the political ramifications of its involvement, the possibility of American special forces and aircraft crossing the Baluchistan border in western Pakistan could make the difference between success and failure.
Finally, Musharraf is the only Pakistani leader to have publicly advocated a debate on finally establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. Although his initiative lost steam with the Israeli attack on Lebanon last year and the subsequent political turmoil in Pakistan, Musharraf has not used the usual anti-Israel rhetoric so common in the Muslim world.
Despite the fact that Pakistan is a long way from the Arab heartland, Musharraf is still a respected figure in the Middle East. This is largely due to Pakistan being the only Muslim nuclear power. But the general's call for "enlightened moderation" is music to the ears of Arab leaders who fear Islamic militancy. They are all nervous about the possibility of an implosion in Pakistan that would encourage militants to establish a permanent presence there, as in Afghanistan during the Taliban era.
Musharraf appears to have got over the worst: he now has a subservient judiciary, a divided opposition, and a supportive White House. His generals are solidly behind him, and the newly-emerging private television channels have been cowed. His decision to retire from the army and take an oath of office as a civilian president is unlikely to cause any major changes in policies, at least in the short run. But the legitimacy he so ardently desires continues to elude him. If he cannot build bridges to the opposition, he will remain vulnerable.
Irfan Husain is a weekly columnist for Dawn and The Daily Times. He served in the Pakistani civil service for 30 years. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.
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