Pakistan is one of the world's eight nuclear powers and the first to be categorized as a failing state. Not failed yet, but on its way, and the world's major powers are powerless to correct the downward spiral.
Some U.S. presidential hopefuls — e.g., Gov. Bill Richardson — are calling on President Pervez Musharraf to resign. At this juncture, such a resignation would guarantee widespread civil strife — and a failed nuclear state.
Mr. Musharraf, who recently retired as military chief in a power-sharing deal with Benazir Bhutto brokered by the United States, appointed his deputy chief of army staff, Gen. Pervez Kayani, a former head of intelligence, as his successor. The army remains the only barrier to total chaos. It is also the guardian of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal (an estimated 60 city-busting weapons).
There is little doubt al-Qaida and Taliban had ordered Mrs. Bhutto's assassination.
They saw her and her plans as the biggest threat to their privileged sanctuaries in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that straddle the Pakistani-Afghan border. Over this past year, Taliban guerrillas in three of the seven FATAs — North and South Waziristan and Baijaur — fought the Pakistani army to a standstill.
Hundreds were captured without a fight and then released with a pledge they would cease and desist killing Taliban fighters.
Mrs. Bhutto told this reporter two weeks before she flew home Oct. 18 about her plans to flush Taliban and al-Qaida out of FATA. She wanted to open up FATA to the country's principal political parties to compete with a coalition of six politico-religious parties, known as MMA, now the only ones allowed to campaign there.
The objective was to wean Pashtun tribesmen from MMA, Taliban and al-Qaida control. This was to be done in conjunction with about $750 million in authorized U.S. aid to bring basic improvements to mountain villages that haven't changed much since the water-bearers in Rudyard Kipling's "Gunga Din."
Still unclear in Mrs. Bhutto's thinking was how to keep Taliban fighters at bay while modernity worked its magic. Pakistani's two provinces on the Afghan frontier — Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier Province — are still governed by the MMA coalition of Taliban sympathizers.
Al-Qaida and Taliban and their secret supporters among renegade veterans of the Pakistani intelligence service that backed them throughout the 1990s, clearly had the most to gain by killing Mrs. Bhutto. In a recent statement, Ayman al-Zawahri, No. 2 to Osama bin Laden, said Mrs. Bhutto's return was a U.S.-orchestrated maneuver.
"Everything that is going on in Pakistan," said Zawahiri, "from the arrangements for the return of Bhutto to the declaration of the state of emergency . . . to repressive measures, is a desperate American attempt to remedy the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan." Shortly before Mrs. Bhutto's return from exile Oct. 18, Taliban commander Haji Omar pledged she would be met by suicide bombers.
The first suicide attack, hours after her return Oct. 18, killed 141, injured 350 — and Mrs. Bhutto escaped behind a few inches of metal in her vehicle.
Baitullah Mehsud, a tribal warlord in North Waziristan, told a Pakistani newspaper suicide bombers had been assigned to eliminate Mrs. Bhutto, but later denied he had said any such thing. Some 500 suicide volunteers have reportedly been trained in recent months.
Mrs. Bhutto also talked to me, not for publication, about Taliban in Afghanistan, which she considered a no-win situation for the United States and NATO allies unless Taliban and al-Qaida could be eliminated in the FATA tribal agencies. She didn't like the idea of allowing U.S. Special Forces to cross the unmarked border into Pakistan. "But we may have no other choice," she conceded, albeit off the record.
There is little doubt retired Inter-Services Intelligence generals who still have a following in the spy agency considered Mrs. Bhutto their principal enemy. They opposed her liberal, secular agenda. In a letter to Mr. Musharraf shortly before her Oct. 18 return, Mrs. Bhutto complained about Ijaz Shah, a self-avowed enemy who is the director of the Intel Bureau (IB), and a personal friend of the president.
She also mentioned two other ranking names in other agencies that were gunning for her.
NATO allies that have committed fighting forces to the Afghan operation — Britain, Canada and the Netherlands — have lost their initial enthusiasm to engage in peacemaking activities. Apart from the frequent firefights and casualties, costs are also mounting and domestic support in Ottawa, London and The Hague is waning. There is also the conviction that everything will be in vain unless Taliban is brought to heel on Pakistan's side of the border.
The longer the Afghan campaign lasts, the bigger the opium crop seems to grow — this past year, some 8,000 tons, an increase of 2,000 tons in the last two years. Two-thirds of Afghanistan's gross domestic product is now opium. It also lubricates corruption in every government department up to almost the top, supplies Taliban with cash for modern weapons, and Pakistan's ISI with petty cash for out-of-budget operations. ISI had assigned 1,500 agents to Taliban in its campaign to conquer Afghanistan in the mid-1990s.
The Bush administration may also be tiring of an endless Afghan conflict. Last week, the United States endorsed the secret contacts some allies have held with Taliban when William Wood, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, said the two expelled diplomats from the European Union had been acting "with absolutely the best intentions."
He also said the United States would support a reconciliation program with "those elements of the Taliban who are prepared to accept the constitution and the authority of the elected government of President Hamid Karzai." Shades of the early peace feelers in Vietnam after the 1968 Tet offensive?
In Pakistan, the only other national political figure who advocates democracy is Mrs. Bhutto's rival Nawaz Sharif, head of the Muslim League, who recently returned from exile where Mr. Musharraf had sent him packing in 1999. But Mr. Sharif is no Benazir Bhutto. Despite his strong denials, an al-Qaida operative, now in jail in the United States, said he knew Mr. Sharif was given $1 million in cash in 1997 by Osama bin Laden in return for keeping Pakistani law enforcement and military out of FATA — which, of course, Mr. Sharif denied.
Like it or not, the United States is now stuck with Mr. Musharraf again. Whether elections are held Jan. 8 as scheduled or postponed, is of little importance. ISI operatives will rig them, as they have been in all balloting since Mr. Musharraf seized power in 1999. Margins of win or lose are carefully calculated down to the last percentage point.
For the vast majority of 160 million Pakistanis, democracy has little meaning. Sixty percent of them are illiterate. The less chaotic periods in Pakistan's 60-year existence were the military coups whose ensuing dictatorships ruled for more than 30 years.
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