Pakistan’s Musharraf Stands Between Us and the Abyss


There has been a flood of criticism of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in the United States in recent months. This shows a lack of understanding of the very real dangers that would face Pakistan and the world if he were to be removed.

The Islamists in Pakistan are a well-armed and well-financed force that wields considerable influence within many parts of the government, and has close ties with the Pakistani military and intelligence services.

These ties grew in the 1980s, when massive U.S. and Saudi military assistance to Afghanistan's anti-Soviet mujahadeen flowed from the United States and Saudi Arabia through Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence.

In the 1990s, Pakistani governments funded and trained Islamist "freedom fighters" for operations against Indian targets in the disputed region of Kashmir. U.S. officials believe that by the time of Sept. 11, 2001, the influence of Islamist sympathizers in Pakistan's army, intelligence services and government had reached a dangerously high level.

In addition, as former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto recently said, Pakistan's military and intelligence services have, for decades, used religious parties for recruits.

The ISI, in particular, includes many key figures who have Islamist attachments. Part of their appeal is that the Islamists embrace strong nationalist symbols, positioning themselves as the protectors of Pakistan's nuclear deterrent capability and the champions of securing Kashmir for Pakistan.

When, after 9/11, the United States put much greater pressure on Pakistan to cut its ties with militant Islam, Musharraf made a momentous decision to join the war on terrorism. But Musharraf's personal commitment was not shared by many hard-line skeptics within his own army. Many of them doubted that the United States could be trusted as an ally — given the American commitment to India — and did not want to turn against longtime jihadi allies. In addition, the costs of confronting the well-entrenched mujahadeen in the border regions with Afghanistan were daunting.

This tension within the Pakistani national security establishment still exists today. If Musharraf, the strongest figure in the moderate wing, were removed, it is very possible that this balance would shift to the advantage of the Islamists and forces hostile to the West.

Musharraf's critics paint a rosy picture of what might happen if Musharraf were removed. But what if they prove wrong, as critics of the Shah of Iran were in 1979 when they predicted that moderate forces would take power after his removal?

Radical elements in an unstable Pakistan could create a nightmare in the sphere of nuclear proliferation. What could happen is illustrated by the case of A.Q. Khan, who headed Pakistan's nuclear program until 2002. Khan admitted in 2004 that he transferred nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya. Musharraf has brought this under control, and the threat is much smaller today. But pressures in the opposite direction still exist, and what would happen without Musharraf is a very open question.

Nor is a return to nuclear proliferation activities the only nightmare scenario. Only five years ago, in May 2002, a state of near-war existed between Pakistan and India, two nuclear-armed states, over the disputed Kashmir region. But the worst did not happen because Musharraf and cooler heads on the Indian side responded to intensive diplomatic efforts by other countries.

But here, too, the pressures in the other direction still exist. Remove Musharraf, and you may be gambling with the stability of Indo-Pakistani relations, with all that implies for the United States and the world.

Keeping Musharraf there as a steady hand does not mean that a change in the status quo isn't coming.

New power-sharing arrangements may very well be necessary and inevitable. But a Pakistan without Musharraf could be a much more dangerous place. In fact, if you look across the world, it's hard to identify any single leader whose removal could open up greater dangers beyond his own country than President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan.

Jack Rosen chairs the American Jewish Congress Council for World Jewry.


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