Musharraf’s Moment

President Musharraf addressed the nation two nights ago, and explained honestly that this is Pakistan’s most critical moment since the War in 1971. Everything is at stake, including the very existence of the nation and control of its nuclear arsenal. If policy is correctly handled, Pakistan can come out of this crisis in a much stronger position, domestically, regionally, and in relations with the United States. Handled poorly, the country could be facing civil war, international isolation, and collapse of the economy. The stakes are really that high.

In President Bush’s address to a joint session of Congress, he spent considerable time explaining the nature of the Taliban regime and its odious record of government. This was not just to fill airtime. Bush was clearly making the case for the overthrow of the Taliban. It is inconceivable that he would have made that speech without indicating to Pakistan what he is thinking.

The American choices are several. If Bush were to be satisfied with Bin Laden himself, then small Special Forces strikes by helicopter flying from Pakistani airbases would be sufficient. If he wants to punish the Taliban, then airstrikes can be sent from aircraft carriers without needing Pakistani bases. But if the goal is to destroy the Taliban, then a ground invasion is necessary. One option would be a helicopter force seizing Kabul airport, then flying soldiers in rather than a true land invasion through the Khyber Pass and other border crossings. But an airborne invasion is logistically difficult, particularly massing an adequate number of transport planes. And the US will have to consider that old Stinger anti-aircraft missiles from the anti-Soviet war are still sloshing around inside Afghanistan.

The question then becomes what to do with Afghanistan once the Taliban are gone. I doubt the US has the stomach to leave 20,000 troops for 5-10 years. Turning it over to a UN force is possible but unlikely. The option that makes the most sense is to allow the Pakistani military to occupy the country. This would also mitigate charges of American conquest of a Muslim country, and guarantee Pakistan controls the security of its border. A return of the several million Afghan refugees from Pakistan can then occur, which is a goal many Pakistanis would like to see achieved.

For Pakistan, this represents a risk and an opportunity. The totally irresponsible fundamentalist parties are making noises about Jihad against Americans and general strikes. Musharraf has explained clearly that Pakistan’s policy will be based on a single criterion, Pakistan’s national interest. This is his way of telling the fundamentalists that he is not listening to any nonsense about Umma and Jihad. They are not entering his, or the army’s, calculations. In the only responsible act of the last 10 years by either the PPP or the PML, both major parties have endorsed Musharraf’s support of the US. If the religious parties persist in their rabble-rousing, my guess is that the army will put them down, even if that means firing on a crowd. Hopefully it will not come to that.

Musharraf is almost certainly going to expect a major quid pro quo from Bush. Fortunately, he has had the tact not to say so in public. But behind the scenes, America is going to be given a rather large bill. An end to all sanctions, resumption of military ties, economic assistance, and debt relief are all on the table.

If done right, this will mean a full-blown American-Pakistani alliance and the end of the current tilt to India. This crisis, and Musharraf’s response, has opened American eyes to the importance of Pakistan. Although overshadowed by India’s size, Pakistan plays a key role in the Muslim world, and that role is underscored by these events. A friendly, closely allied Pakistan becomes a pillar of American policy in the Muslim world.

The Taliban are in deep trouble. Bush essentially declared them an outlaw regime. Between them and Osama Bin Laden, Islam has no greater enemies. The World Trade Center horror has smeared Islam tremendously. They have harmed us in a profound way, and do not deserve any sympathy. The Taliban have subjected the people of Afghanistan to a barbaric and medieval regime that have pushed millions into near starvation. It was over 100 million dollars of American food aid this year that was keeping Afghans alive. The first responsibility of a just Muslim government is to provide for the basic needs of its people, and the Taliban have utterly failed. The Taliban will raise the false cry of Jihad in order to deceive some to see it as a victim. The real victims are the people living under their thuggish rule. They should be liberated.