Pakistan: Powder Keg Waiting To Explode

Date: 9/25/2003


..........Pakistan: Powder Keg Waiting To Explode


........DAILY BREEZE.COM, Monday, September 22, 2003


Is Pakistan (a) America's ally in the war on terrorism; (b) America's enemy in the war on terrorism; (c) a powder keg that could explode at any moment; or (d) all of the above?

On the question of ally or enemy, the answer might well depend on what aspect of the United States-Pakistani relationship one chooses to look at, on specific events and time frames, and on just what part of the Pakistani power structure one focuses on. As to whether Pakistan is a powder keg, those who know intelligence, terrorism and the region can come up with any number of reasons to answer with an emphatic "yes."

For those who have followed only the surface narrative, the fast and fancy footwork necessitated by the immediate U.S. response to 9-11 obscured an important and inescapable fact: Afghanistan's Taliban were in no small part a creation of Pakistani intelligence and military operatives who wanted a way to keep Afghanistan under Pakistani influence. Their competitors in this were neighboring states: Iran, Russia, India and some of the Islamic former Soviet republics.

Pakistan's machinations in the early and mid-1990s have been reported to have had the tacit support of the United States, which was involved in Afghanistan for years after the 1979 Soviet invasion. When the Soviets left in 1989, the United States, too, largely abandoned Afghanistan. Then, in 1996, the Pakistani-backed Taliban were initially welcomed by the suffering Afghan population.

And somewhere along the line, under Presidents Bush I and Clinton, the United States failed to recognize the danger when Osama bin Laden first bought, then flat-out hijacked, the Taliban regime.

America, under Republican and Democratic administrations, slept. The gradual awakening to the threat, in the late 1990s, came too late. Bin Laden, with Mullah Mohammed Omar as his front man, had become the kingpin. And among his allies were some very highly placed Pakistani military and intelligence officers, along with segments of Pakistan's police force, scientists, teachers and clergy. And they still are. That's the problem.

It is most acute in the border "territories" of Pakistan's northwest, where tribal leaders are known to sympathize with al-Qaida. But the problem reaches throughout Pakistan, where President Pervez Musharraf must balance aiding the United States in its war on al-Qaida with avoiding completely alienating Taliban- and al-Qaida-sympathizing elements of the military and intelligence services that brought him to power.

And because Pakistan has nuclear weapons, it is a balancing act without a net. If Musharraf were to be overthrown, America's most bitter enemies in the war on terrorism could find themselves in possession of the bomb.

The United States has pledged billions of dollars to Pakistan to keep the government propped up. On the surface, its leaders appear friendly and allied with U.S. interests. But deeper down - in the military, intelligence and police ranks and in the mosques - danger lurks.

This complex, frightening situation is a factor behind the U.S. inability to find bin Laden or Mohammed Omar, and, because of Pakistani exports of nuclear and missile technology to North Korea, it is complicating U.S. foreign policy far beyond Central Asia.

So, the answer to the question at the start of this piece might very well be "d" - all of the above. There are, however, no easy answers for what to do about it. But pretending it doesn't exist is to ensure that it will get worse. And perhaps explode. Is America sleeping again?

Dan Rather anchors the "CBS Evening News" and is a syndicated columnist. His column appears every Sunday.

............Publish Date:September 21, 2003