The Question of Pakistan

16 February 2003

The Question of Pakistan

By Gwynne Dyer

When the National Security Council does the worst-case analysis in a US attack on Iraq, what do its members tell themselves about Pakistan? You know, the world’s second-biggest Muslim country, the one with the nuclear weapons. Do they ever worry that the backlash elsewhere against an American invasion of Iraq might include the overthrow of Pakistan’s pro-Western ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, by Islamist officers in his own armed forces, or are they so high on hubris and self-righteousness that they don’t even consider that possibility?

General Musharraf first came to the world’s notice by infiltrating Pakistani troops into the Indian-controlled Kargil mountains of Kashmir in the winter of 1998-99, causing a battle that ended with over a thousand soldiers dead and a humiliating withdrawal by Pakistan. Musharraf blamed the civilian prime minister Nawaz Sharif for backing down (from an incursion that he had never authorised), and six months later he overthrew him. How to become an international pariah in three easy steps — but then came the terrorist attacks of 11 September, 2001.

Suddenly the highest US priority was to get at Afghanistan and destroy the headquarters of the al-Qaeda terrorists who had murdered over three thousand Americans — which put Musharraf on the spot. Not only was Pakistan’s territory needed for a US military operation in landlocked Afghanistan, but the Taliban, the radical Islamist group that ran Afghanistan and let al-Qaeda’s leaders live there, were largely the creation of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence agency (ISI). Musharraf hesitated only hours before throwing in his lot with President George W. Bush.

The rewards were large and immediate. Suddenly Musharraf was a respected national leader’ rather than a usurping general who had destroyed Pakistan’s fragile democracy. The US sanctions that had been imposed after India and Pakistan both tested nuclear weapons in 1998 were lifted at once, and copious American aid flowed into the financially stricken country. When Musharraf tried to legitimise his rule with a stage-managed election last October, European Union observers said it was “seriously flawed” — but the US State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, called it “a credible representation of the full range of opinion in the country.”

Musharraf’s decision involved big risks, of course. It meant abandoning the commanding position that Pakistan had built up in Afghanistan through the ISI’s patronage of the Taliban, and upsetting millions of militant Islamists in Pakistan who revere Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s founder. More importantly, there was the risk of a military coup within an army that has a significant number of Islamist officers in the senior ranks. But Musharraf placed his bet and did not flinch, and so far he has done just fine.

US troops in Pakistan keep a very low profile, and the army remains obedient to Musharraf. Near-monthly attacks by Islamist terrorists against resident foreigners and Pakistan’s 3 percent Christian minority have killed dozens in the past year, and bin Laden is probably hiding with some of his many admirers among Karachi’s 14 million people — but so far, so good.

So far, however, does not include a US invasion of Iraq and its possible ramifications, including Israeli participation in the war, tens of thousands of Arab civilian casualties in Iraq, and the overthrow of pro-Western governments elsewhere in the Arab world. Can Musharraf survive the upheavals that are probably just around the corner? It matters a lot, because Pakistan has dozens of nuclear weapons while no Arab state has any.

It matters much less to the rest of the world than people imagine if the Egyptian or Saudi Arabian regimes, say, were to be overthrown by Islamist revolutions in reaction to Mr Bush’s conquest of Iraq. Arabians would have to go on selling their oil at world market prices under any conceivable post-Saudi regime, because they live off the proceeds, just as the Egyptians would have to keep the Suez Canal open because they need the revenue. Israel might have a somewhat harder time if these two large Arab states fell into the hands of its Islamist enemies, but its military superiority in the region is so overwhelming that it could easily deal with them.

The Arabs cannot challenge Israel successfully, and the other four-fifths of the world’s Muslims mostly feel only a distant sympathy for fellow Muslims in a desperate situation. Most non-Arab Muslims have a much smaller sense of grievance against the world than the Arabs, because their recent history has not been such a disastrous record of defeat and failure on every front. They have never fought for the Arabs in the past, and they will not do so now — with the single, potentially vital exception of Pakistan.

Pakistanis have a profound sense of grievance against both India and the West for their defeats and failures over the past fifty years, and the only thing that holds the disparate ethnic groups of the country together is their shared commitment to Islam. An Islamist coup in Pakistan in the event of a US attack on Iraq would probably have enough popular support to survive — and despite its obsessive fixation on India, Pakistan is a country which, under Islamist rule, might well share its nuclear weapons with like-minded Islamist states in the Arab world.

Of course, there aren’t any Islamist states in the Arab world right now. But next month’s war may fix that, too.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“The rewards…country”; and “US troops…good”)