1 March 2004

Blowing Up Pakistan

By Gwynne Dyer

“We’re going to get our troops inside Pakistan in return for not forcing Musharraf to deal with Khan,” said a former senior US intelligence official quoted in Seymour Hersh’s article on US-Pakistan relations in the most recent issue of ‘New Yorker’ magazine. It’s a perfectly balanced deal, as elegant as a mathematical equation: both sides of it are insanely stupid.

The deal, if Hersh’s revelations are correct, works like this. Thousands of American troops will be allowed to deploy this spring in a tribal area of northwestern Pakistan to hunt for al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, who is alleged to be in the area. In return, Washington will not press Pakistan’s president, General Pervez Musharraf, to probe more deeply into the scandal surrounding the sale of nuclear weapons components to Iran, Libya, North Korea and God knows where else by the ‘father’ of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan.

Maybe Washington has made this deal because it knows that any further investigation of Khan’s activities would show that Musharraf knew what Khan was doing years ago, or was even involved in it. The Pakistani president is now America’s “indispensable ally” in the war on terror, according to the Bush administration, so maybe they just decided not to push it any further because they’d have to break their ties with Musharraf if it came out that he was the master proliferator to the ‘axis of evil’. This would qualify as a seriously stupid decision.

Or maybe the US authorities don’t think Musharraf was involved, but suspect that other senior officers in the Pakistani army were — generals who might decide it was time for Musharraf to go if he turned the investigators loose on them. So we’ll just nod and wink and let it all pass to keep our guy in power. It’s more important to have Musharraf’s cooperation in chasing some al-Qaeda remnants along the Afghan border than to get to the bottom of an operation that was purveying nuclear weapons secrets and technology for years to the very ‘rogue states’ the United States is supposed to be so worried about.

As M.A. Niazi wrote in ‘The Nation’ in Lahore after Khan made his televised confession in early February and was immediately pardoned: “There are only three possibilities. First, that Dr Khan was acting on orders from above, and now a huge cover-up is being conducted. Second, that Dr Khan managed to fool the entire military and intelligence establishments for two decades. Third, that he was proliferating on his own, either in the national interest, or purely for profit, or both, but that the authorities learnt about it afterwards, and kept quiet….”

General Musharraf runs a one-bullet regime, and he has escaped assassination twice in the past three months. This does not mean he should have given a free pass on nuclear proliferation. The ‘Washington Post’ editorial on 6 February was scathing: “The attempt by Gen. Musharraf to whitewash his country’s marketing of nuclear weapons technology to rogue dictatorships and sponsors of terrorism comes as no surprise…What’s hard to believe is the Bush administration’s reaction…Mr Bush should insist that Pakistan supply the details of its trafficking to the International Atomic Energy Authority and allow outside monitoring of its programs.”

Instead of demanding a full accounting of the black-market nuclear operation, Mr Bush congratulated General Musharraf on getting Dr Khan to admit to his past crimes, and made no protest when Musharraf refused foreign inspection of Pakistani nuclear facilities, refused to let foreign intelligence services question Dr Khan, and declared the whole matter closed. It seemed almost incomprehensible behaviour in a man whose whole presidency has come to focus on preventing weapons of mass destruction from falling into the hands of ‘rogue states’.

Now it is more comprehensible, because we know the quid pro quo. The single event that would have the greatest positive impact on Mr Bush’s re-election chances this November is the capture by American forces of Osama bin Laden. It’s not that bin Laden is an active threat any more – if he were in regular communication with his followers, he would have been tracked down long ago — but he represents a symbolic victory in the war on terror that could easily be the margin between victory and defeat for Mr Bush next November. So you can keep Dr Khan, General Musharraf, if we can put US forces into Pakistan.

It is monumental folly. If bin Laden is really there, let Pakistani forces track him down, but to put thousands of American troops into the Pathan tribal areas of northwest Pakistan lends wings to the concept of stupidity. Pakistanis in general have an acute allergic reaction to the idea of having American troops on their soil, and the area where the troops will be operating is precisely where bin Laden’s most avid admirers are to be found. Every male over fourteen in that part of Pakistan goes armed, and clashes between them and US troops are guaranteed. What happens then?

What could easily happen is the overthrow of General Musharraf, and hen we really are in unknown territory. This is a nuclear-armed country where all the leading civilian politicians have been discredited and where nobody knows who the next general might be. So far the Pakistani army has always intervened in politics corporately, preserving the chain of command, but that is not written in the stars. And if Pakistan really spins out of control, foreign intervention is absolutely guaranteed. Neither the United States nor India would sit by and let those nuclear weapons fall into the wrong hands.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“As M.A.Niazi…programs”)