Facing heavy U.S. pressure, Pakistan pledged this weekend to give its "full support" to finding and punishing the perpetrators of last week's terrorist attacks. But before putting Delta Force commandos on the next flight to Peshawar, the United States ought to consider whether it is asking Pakistani president and army boss Gen. Pervez Musharraf to do too much. In a worst-case scenario, public discontent with any U.S. intervention could sow disastrous instability in a nation already fractured by sectarian strife and armed with as many as 30 nuclear bombs.
Uncle Sam wants the use of Pakistani airspace and military airfields, access to Pakistani intelligence on prime suspect Osama Bin Laden and his network, a freeze on terrorist funds in Pakistani banks, and a halt to convoys of fuel and other supplies to Afghanistan, where Bin Laden and company are the guests of the ruling Taliban militia. U.S. officials say Pakistan has signed off on all these demands. Pakistan's public statements have been more wobbly, shying away from specific details and noting that Pakistan would "continue to act in conformity with its support of the state of Afghanistan."
To be sure, Pakistan has unrivaled ties and leverage with Afghanistan's prickly fundamentalist Taliban. In fact, the Taliban was incubated in tens of thousands of Pakistani madrasahs, or Islamic religious schools, that sprang up with the encouragement of Pakistani dictator Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq during the fight against the Soviet takeover of Afghanistan. Teaching little besides a fiery, narrow, and intolerant brand of Islam, the madrasahs churned out thousands of anti-Soviet mujahideen, including those who formed the backbone of the Taliban when it launched its crusade in 1994 to end Afghanistan's post-Soviet internal struggles and bring the country under Islamic law. Over the last decade, Pakistan's army and Inter-Services Intelligence agency have helped the Taliban by doing everything from bankrolling its operations to apparently providing direct combat support—aid that Human Rights Watch says has continued despite U.N. sanctions.
On Monday morning, a high-level Pakistani delegation traveled to Afghanistan to persuade the Taliban to cough up Bin Laden. But asking Pakistan to attack, much less topple, the Taliban would be like asking it to jeopardize some of its most cherished strategic objectives. To begin with, friendly relations with Afghanistan have given Pakistan a means to project its influence into the newly independent and relatively unstable nations of Central Asia. And with its Afghan frontier relatively secure, Pakistan has been free to concentrate the bulk of its armed forces on its border with arch-enemy India. The Taliban has also been a valuable resource in Pakistan's struggle with India over Kashmir—a popular crusade backed by Osama Bin Laden as well. And by supporting the Taliban's Islamic aspirations in Afghanistan, Pakistan has helped to keep a lid on separatist sentiment along Pakistan's northwest frontier.
More importantly, any Pakistani participation in a U.S. retaliatory strike risks triggering uncontrollable domestic unrest. Drawing on a pool of unemployed, disaffected youth and Afghan refugees, Pakistan's madrasahs have become the wellspring of what terrorism expert Jessica Stern and others have called Pakistan's "Jihad culture," not only supporting the Taliban but stoking sectarian strife within Pakistan and exporting Islamic radicalism to places like Chechnya, western China, and Central Asia. While Pakistani political parties backed by extreme fundamentalists don't command wide support, they have built ties to Pakistan's military and intelligence services—an ironic byproduct of a political coalition forged in 1993 by that ex-darling of the West, Harvard-trained kleptocrat and former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto. The vast majority of Pakistanis who follow more moderate branches of Islam may not take to the streets and burn down the U.S. Embassy (as happened in 1979). But stung by our fickle track record as an ally, our support for Israel, and the growing perception that the United States is generally anti-Islam, most are unlikely to support a government that goes along with U.S. action against co-religionists of any stripe. Indeed, popular grumbling with Musharraf's decision is already widespread.
Unlike, say, Norway—a NATO ally that recently expressed reservations about joining a U.S. retaliatory attack—Pakistan is not exactly equipped to weather political storms. In fact, if the United Nations were to give an award to countries least likely to succeed, Pakistan would surely be among the top contenders. Its half-century of existence has been marked by almost two decades of martial law, three murdered leaders (OK, two—former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged after he left office), and a succession of military takeovers of which Gen. Musharraf's in October 1999 is only the most recent. More of a boiling cauldron than a melting pot, its population of 140 million (which speaks more than 20 languages) is regularly roiled by conflicts between its original population and those who emigrated from India, between inhabitants of different provinces or members of different tribes, and between the majority Sunni and minority Shiite Muslims, among others. Transparency International, a corruption watchdog, rates it among the world's most corrupt countries. Only 1 percent of the population pays income tax. And after almost $60 billion in foreign assistance over the last four decades—making Pakistan the world's third-largest recipient of foreign aid—its population has an annual per capita income of only $470.
Musharraf, though, probably didn't have much of a choice when facing U.S. pressure that, according to Monday's New York Times, included every lever "short of war." The United States could brandish the threat not only of existing and potential U.S. and international sanctions (especially the likely spiking of a vital loan from the International Monetary Fund) but also the prospect of a further strategic tilt toward India and a deepening of Pakistan's pariah status. To be fair, there are reports that the United States offered Pakistan the reward of better relations and increased assistance. But for poor Gen. Musharraf's sake, it's worth remembering what happened the last time Pakistan helped out the United States. True, Pakistan's stand against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan did yield billions of dollars in U.S. military and economic assistance, not to mention the chance to pass out thousands of Stinger anti-aircraft missiles as party favors. But after the Soviets left Afghanistan and the Cold War ended, the United States "rediscovered" Pakistan's nuclear program and cut off U.S. aid, leaving it to deal with borders clotted by more than 2 million Afghan refugees, a thriving market in guns and drugs, and a burgeoning population of Islamic freedom fighters with time on their hands. A decade of "bad dog" diplomacy followed, with little U.S. attention paid to Pakistan besides the occasional thwacking when tensions over Kashmir threatened to explode or when Pakistan received another shipment of missile components from its best buddy, China.
Pakistan's spectacular entry into the declared nuclear powers club with the detonation of six nuclear devices in 1998 should have changed that pattern of fitful U.S. neglect. It didn't. Maybe the current crisis finally will. For if the course of the last decade in places like Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf teaches us anything, it is that the true test of U.S. foreign policy is not so much before the bombs and missiles are launched, but after they've landed.
Published in MSN Slate. Author James Gibney is the executive editor of Foreign Policy magazine.