Defense secretary Robert Gates is rightly concerned that the internal turmoil in Pakistan is distracting crucial efforts from tracking al Qaeda and the resurgent Taliban.
“The concern I have is that the longer the internal problems continue, the more distracted the Pakistani army and security services will be in terms of the internal situation rather than focusing on the terrorist threat in the frontier area,” Gates said.
There are plenty of signs of the damage already done. Some 200 members of government forces in the Swat Valley surrendered to the Taliban in recent days. In the Northwest Frontier Territory, a car bomb has killed a senior government official. Across the country troops are deployed to monitor, arrest and beat the democratic opposition.
How distracted is the army? It would seem plenty. Musharraf’s power play has discredited an already weak government, and my friends monitoring the situation say the command-and-control structure is in tatters.
If the primary concern now is arresting people, beating journalists, shutting down the media, confining political leaders to their homes and other activities that are manpower intensive but of little use in counter-terrorism, then we are in severe difficulty. The Taliban has shown its opportunistic streak before, and its leaders are smart enough to know opportunity when it smacks them upside the head.
This matters tremendously when the consequences of such chaos significantly up the odds that the Islamist radicals can get their hands on nuclear weapons. It is not like the Taliban and al Qaeda are strangers to the ISI and military in Pakistan. And the Islamists have made it clear that acquiring these weapons is their highest priority.
They have relationships that go back decades, and a great deal of religious and political agreement built on fundamentalist, Wahhabist theology.
This is also a view shared by most of the Pakistani public. A recent poll cited by Diana West shows that Pakistanis listed defeating “al Qaeda, the Taliban and other Jihadi groups” dead last in their list of priorities.
It is not hard to understand that if one is living in poverty (in a highly corrupted system) that defeating someone of the same general theology and ideology would not be a high priority.
And it is a dangerous sign of the weakness of a civilian, secular government represented by politicians like Benazir Bhutto. This reality further constricts the limited options available as Musharraf goes about his grabfor power.
A.Q. Khan’s network showed how efficiently nuclear plans, technology and machinery can move when the primary motivation is economic. This efficiency is only likely to be improved when the motivation is primarily religious and ideological.
There are no good options in Pakistan. But securing the nuclear arsenal from those who have made acquiring the weapons their highest priority must be our highest priority. Otherwise, we risk an attack that will make 9/11 look minor in comparison.