Influenced by his neoconservative advisers, President Bush once portrayed the American invasion of Baghdad and the ouster of Saddam Hussein as a pivotal battle in the global war on terrorism.
According to this view, the Baath regime in Baghdad had extensive ties to radical Muslim terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, and was in the process of stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. It was, thus, necessary to take the war on terrorism to Iraq.
Well, even the president now admits that Washington has no evidence of a link between Iraq and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and inspectors haven't found any weapons of mass destruction. If anything, the political chaos in postwar Iraq and the growing anti-American sentiments there have made the area a magnet for al-Qaeda-style terrorists.
More importantly, while Americans have been searching for weapons of mass destruction and for al-Qaeda agents in Iraq, they could have discovered those same threats in Pakistan, a country the Bush administration describes as one of America's leading allies in the war on terrorism.
In Pakistan, there are legions of bin Laden followers; plenty of links between government officials and terrorists; and nuclear weapons that could fall into the hands of anti-American terrorists. This is not speculation.
Indeed, Pakistan, under President Pervez Musharraf -- the general who, in a coup, overthrew a democratically elected government and whose military and security services had served before 9-11 as the leading backer of the Taliban -- seems to be undermining stability in neighboring Afghanistan.
Pakistan also is reportedly harboring Islamic militants, fighting Indian forces in Kashmir and elsewhere, and playing an active role in the proliferation of nuclear weapons, which it has already developed -- unlike Iraq or Iran, the latter another member of the infamous Axis of Evil.
Several respectable news outlets, including Newsweek, have reported that members of a resurgent Taliban, enjoying the support of Pashtun tribes as well as sympathetic Pakistani military officers led by the Inter-Services Intelligence, are using Pakistan as a base for strikes against the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. In fact, some intelligence experts suspect that Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders may have found sanctuaries in the so-called Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan.
More of a concern for the United States is the growing evidence that Pakistan's nuclear program -- an arsenal believed to contain between 35 and 60 nuclear weapons -- may have become a source of technology for North Korea and Iran. Also, some evidence points to some Pakistani nuclear scientists maintaining ties to al-Qaeda and other extremist Islamic groups. All of this suggests that under various scenarios, including the collapse of Musharraf's rule or a coup staged by radical Islamists, Pakistan could turn into a nuclear-armed ally of al-Qaeda.
Ironically, while Washington has been shoring up Pakistan's military regime and perpetuating Pakistan's mismanaged and corrupt economic system, the United States has refused to take a step that could help members of Pakistan's middle class and its Western-oriented entrepreneurs: open American markets to Pakistani textiles.
Under pressure from the U.S. textile lobby and other powerful protectionist groups, the Bush administration and Congress have been unwilling to make tough, but necessary decisions. They are unwilling to help revive the economies of poor Muslim countries, such as Pakistan, by providing their exports with access to American markets.
That protectionist policy not only undermines the interests of American consumers, but also plays into the hands of radical groups in Pakistan and elsewhere that are always ready to exploit the misery of the unemployed and the angry.
While the United States should work with Pakistan in the economic arena, it should refrain from embracing the Musharraf regime as an ally. In a way, Pakistan -- not Iraq -- remains a central stage in America's continuing antiterrorism campaign.
By diverting scarce military and economic resources to fight an unnecessary war in Iraq, Washington may have weakened its ability to contain those who perpetrated the 9-11 terrorist acts and their benefactors.