The Thinker

Wrong Target

Somehow, I could sense that Benazir Bhutto would not survive the year. Maybe subconsciously she had a death wish. Martyrs often live larger in death than they did in life. On October 18th, when the exiled former Pakistani Prime Minister triumphantly returned to Pakistan after years of exile, 145 of her supporters died from targeted suicide attacks during her welcome home rally. Yet she was not deterred and either fearlessly or recklessly continued campaigning to win power again. Today we learn of her assassination, which quickly escalated into yet another mass murder triggered by a fanatical suicide bomber probably linked to al Qaeda. At least twenty others were killed in today’s attack.

From our distant perspective ten thousand miles away, her assassination is more sad evidence that Pakistan and Afghanistan, not Iraq, should have been our real front in the war on terrorism. Sadly, it has all the right ingredients to be its front line. It is a sometimes democratic nation still without firm roots in democracy. It has known as much totalitarianism as democracy. It is a country that now has to grapple with whether it will be secular or theocratic. The Pakistani military rarely fights outside its borders. Instead, it spends much of its time unsuccessfully containing an emerging a civil war.

Unlike either Iraq or Iran, Pakistan has nukes. Their nuclear weapons are outside of our ability to control them. Should Islamic extremists gain control of Pakistan, they could be leveraged against us. To preclude that possibility, we may end up having to support its many totalitarian regimes. Democracy is a nice idea, but keeping nuclear arms from being used against us requires sane people in command. Dictators believe foremost in clinging to power, so they are unlikely to do anything too rash. This was why I was not surprised that we found no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq after we invaded.

Its old news, but we took our eye off the real target. Instead, President Bush squandered the last five years chasing an illusionary Axis of Evil. By invading Iraq, he unbottled its repressed sectarian forces and put our troops in the crossfire. Troops that might have gone into Afghanistan where our real enemies lied went instead into Iraq to try to contain a bloody sectarian civil war. Meanwhile, since we elected to distract ourselves, al Qaeda’s leadership moved into the relative safety of lawless northwestern Pakistan. The area may be lawless, but Pakistan still considers it part of its territory, so it prohibited us from actually sending in our forces to engage al Qaeda there. There is irony that our greatest enemy found relative sanctuary and new strength from our erstwhile ally. That new strength was on display yesterday with Bhutto’s assassination.

According to the latest National Intelligence Estimate, Iran ended its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Despite having access to this intelligence, our administration chose instead to rattle sabers with Iran and thus inflame our diplomatic row with its leaders. Fortunately, with the release of this NIE we can at least rule out a preemptive war with Iran. You would think Bush and Cheney might have learned something from the Iraq debacle, but apparently not.

The irony is that if we really want to solve the war on terrorism, we need Iran’s assistance. It appears that it is reducing the number of arms smuggled into Iraq. Iran also helped us early in the war by lending its support to forces that undermined the Taliban. Iran is overwhelming Shi’ite. Al Qaeda is a force of Sunni extremism. Iran may be a quasi-democratic theocracy, but the last thing its rulers want is to be surrounded by states associated with al Qaeda. That was in part why they were providing arms to Shi’ite militiamen in Iraq; they saw it in their own self-interest.

Iraq may appear to be our quagmire, but it is unlikely that our national security would be undermined if we left. The people who live there might have to fight a protracted civil war, but they consider our presence counterproductive. Surveys of Iraqis consistently show they want us out.

It is hard to see though what we can now do in Pakistan to defeat Islamic extremism. A few surgical strikes against the leaders of al Qaeda might be effective but it might also inflame anti-American passions and thus prove counterproductive. Following the Vietnam model and placing hundreds of thousands of our troops there will not solve our problem either for the same reason the British lost the Revolutionary War: there is too much terrain to occupy. It is ruinously expensive to occupy any territory indefinitely, as we are finding out in Iraq. Just as Vietnam endured a civil war, so Pakistan is grappling with what looks like its own internal war. Foremost, we would like to ensure that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons never get into the wrong hands. However, it is unlikely that the Pakistani government will trust them to our safekeeping.

Thanks to Bush Administration bungling, our short-term options are now bleak. We may have to support Musharraf even though he is likely to continue to give democracy the short shrift. We would do so on the assumption that a dictatorship is preferable to wholesale anarchy. We can also keep pushing for democracy but it is tacitly understood that we will only be cheering for it from the sidelines and will not do anything meaningful to allow it to flourish. As we have learned in Iraq and Palestine, we have to be careful what we wish for. A democratic government in Pakistan may not be aligned with our national interests. However, it is likely that an enduring democratic government in Pakistan would promote long-term peace in the region.

As I have mentioned in other entries this war on terror cannot not won on the battlefield. It is a generational war that fades into gradual irrelevance by uplifting lives. The real causes of Islamic terrorism are not religious, but are a result of the persistent and pervasive feelings of hopelessness and the miserable living conditions within much of the Islamic world. To some extent, these conditions are fed by not embracing Western capitalistic values. (Note that few people in prosperous Qatar want to see the regime replaced.) Until governments there change to embrace the needs of the people, radical clerics will find they have a ready audience.

The United States must look long term. It is in our interest to quietly facilitate and fund as much humanitarian aid for the disenfranchised as possible in the Islamic world. This does not mean giving billions to Halliburton, but it does mean working discreetly with non-governmental organizations in the region and funding organizations like the Red Crescent to ensure they have the capital to change conditions on the ground. We also need to make our foreign aid conditional on meeting benchmarks for improving the living standards of people in a country. This conflict is about how Islam will fit into the 21st century. Right now, we are being used as proxies to inflame the conflict. We must change the dynamic and Pakistan is likely its front.

 

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