August 18, 2006 10:47AM

Pakistan and the “Other” Other War

Today's New York Times reports that Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, is caught in "one of the most serious political binds of his nearly seven-year tenure." Gen. Musharraf's bind is an American bind, too, because he has been "one of Washington's most indispensable allies" since the 9/11 attacks, and Washington is loathe to see a nuclear-armed country of 165 million people become an enemy in the war on terrorism.

The tension between short-term diplomatic expediency and long-term political objectives has characterized U.S.-Pakistani relations for years. Another Pakistani general who took power in a coup, Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, aided U.S. efforts to drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan in the 1980s (which we appreciated), even as his country was busy developing nuclear weapons (which we didn't). 

Today, the short-term benefit that we derive — Musharraf's cooperation in the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban — is being undermined by Musharraf's political weakness at home. We don't appreciate that groups in Pakistan have been linked to the London airplane bombing plot; we don't appreciate that Pakistan's government has proved either unable or unwilling to eliminate the flow of foreign fighters and foreign money into Afghanistan, as The Times of London reported yesterday; we are frustrated by the whitewash of the A.Q. Khan affair, one of the most notorious cases of nuclear proliferation in the history of the NPT regime; and it is uncomfortable, to say the least, for the Bush administration to say that it favors democracy while clinging tightly to an undemocratic ruler such as Musharraf. 

And yet, the fear of what could come — and the worst-case scenario of an Al Qaeda sympathizer with his finger on Pakistan's nuclear button is very, very bad — inhibits the United States from pressuring Musharraf on a range of issues. 

How long can this persist? And what are we sacrificing over the long-term in order to see the Pakistani status quo remain in place?

We are certainly sacrificing any semblance of consistency.

Take, for example, the Bush administration's approach to the issue of state sovereignty, and of holding a sovereign government responsible — to its own people and to the international community — for what takes place on its territory, and compare the three cases of Lebanon and Hezbollah, Iraq and Iran, and Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In the war between Israel and Hezbollah, a fragile cease-fire remains in place as the Lebanese government attempts to reassert is authority over an independent militia supported by foreign governments. The AP reports that the Lebanese army deployment into southern Lebanon "marks the extension of government sovereignty over the whole country for the first time since 1969."

In the other war of great interest for Americans, the war in Iraq, Shiite militias, also supported by foreigners, undermine the legitimacy of the government, and threaten to drag the country into a full-fledged civil war.

In the first instance, the U.S. government supports a UN force (one that will not include U.S. troops, thankfully) to shore up a weak government. The implication is that the Siniora government cannot be held responsible for Hezbollah's actions. (The fact that Hezbollah is a member of the government adds a further complication.)

In the case of Iraq, the United States has darkly warned Iran and Syria to halt the flow of foreign fighters across the border, and to cease all support for the ethnic militias. Several agitators outside of the administration have declared Iran and Syria's meddling in Iraq to be an immediate casus belli. The implication is that Tehran and Damascus are in complete control of their borders, and of all money that flows (even from private hands) to the militias. This is not a problem of weak governance; it is a problem of mendacious governments.

Return, then, to Pakistan's behavior in America's "other" other war — the one that we launched after the 9/11 attacks.

The Times of London story reported that "Highly trained foreign fighters are pouring back into Afghanistan across the Pakistani border to take on British and other Nato troops." One source told The Times: "We know they are coming from Egypt, Syria and the Yemen and there may well be foreign fighters from other countries who are once again taking up the Taleban cause."

The parallels are hardly perfect — few are. In fact, the problem in Pakistan's lawless northwest territories is worse than what is taking place in Iraq, or what was happening (and might still happen) in southern Lebanon. In the case of Lebanon, Hezbollah posed a direct threat to Israel. In Iraq, the threat is of an incipient civil war evolving into a full-scale conflict, and then a regional war. In Afghanistan, if the Taliban's resurgence facilitates Al Qaeda's efforts, and if the Pakistani-Afghan border proves as porous to other things (e.g., nuclear materials or weapons) as it is to people and money, it threatens the whole world.

The Bush policy in Lebanon is in support of an international force. In Iraq, the president favors confrontation with the foreigners meddling in Iraqi internal affairs. With respect to Pakistan and Afghanistan, we adopt a muddled, middle course — fearful of pressuring Musharraf else his government falls, but frustrated by the extent to which Pakistan remains at the center of the terror war.

If the trend lines were moving in an upward trajectory — if Islamic radicalism was on the decline in Pakistan, if Afghanistan was becoming more stable, if Musharraf was making meaningful progress towards democratization, or, at least, gaining strength against the radical Islamists — we could hold to the current course on the assumption (hope, really) that we could ride out the storm and that circumstances will ultimately improve.

But the trend lines are not moving in a favorable direction, and it suggests that a different approach is needed. At a minimum, we must be thinking about, and preparing for, a post-Musharraf future, whenever that might come.