President George W. Bush senses he may be standing at the threshold of two possible fiascos: the Middle East peace conference in Annapolis this month – in which he would share an experience familiar to all his predecessors in the White House – but much, much worse, the downfall of Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf. In falling, he would take with him a large section of America’s worldwide anti-terror strategy.
If Israel and the Palestinians fail for the umpteenth time to come to terms in Maryland, little would change; the Israeli-Palestinian war would go into its eighth year. In Pakistan, the stakes are a lot higher. The Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda might reach into Pakistan, as they have already begun to, swallow up parts of the country and overrun Musharraf’s regime in Islamabad.
The shock would recall the Khomeinist Islamic Revolution, which swept the shah off the Peacock Throne in Tehran 30 years ago.
The analogies are clear. Like the shah, who partnered the United States in the Cold War against the Soviet Union, the Pakistani president is seen by President Bush as a key America ally in the war against Muslim jihadists and al Qaeda. Then, Washington pushed the shah to mend his undemocratic ways, just as today the US hopes Musharraf will fully embrace democracy and join forces with the moderate opposition to defeat the extremists at Pakistan’s door.
Should al Qaeda and Taliban oust Musharraf, Bush would end his presidency like Jimmy Carter, whose last days in the White house were beset with humiliations at the hands of the empowered ayatollahs who drove the shah from Tehran.
His advisers are egging him on to press the Pakistani president to retire as army chief, revoke his emergency measures and hold elections. It is a matter of record that Carter flew to Tehran on Christmas Eve 1979, and whispered in the ear of the Empress Farah Diba while dancing with her at the banquet in his honor, that the United States would never let the shah fall.
As they danced, the shah’s servants were hastily packing the royal family’s possessions ready to flee Tehran.
Loyalties of top army and intelligence echelons uncharted
US politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike, are insisting on Bush making it clear to the Pakistani president that he must restore the democratic process in his country. This insistence is having a similar effect in Islamabad and the Muslim world as did Carter’s pledge almost three decades ago on the shah’s fate.
Top state department official John Negroponte reaffirmed Bush’s belief to the Foreign Affairs Committee of Congress that Musharraf is an indispensable ally in the war of terror. He explained to the lawmakers: “We cannot afford to return to our past estrangement. Partnership with Pakistan and its people is the only option.”
This has been taken in Pakistan as US support voiced with forked tongue. “People power” is what the opposition leader, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto is trying to invoke against Musharraf.
In the framework of American values, Bush was correct in demanding that Musharraf “widen his political base by allowing Bhutto to return home” – an event which precipitated the current political crisis – just as he is right to tell the Pakistani president to stop harassing the protesters in the streets of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, and reinstate the deposed chief justice.
However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and counter-terror sources describe the effect of this hammering by Washington as weakening Musharraf’s stand against the very extremists Washington expects him to fight, Taliban and the Muslim extremists, including al Qaeda.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources, who spoke to US intelligence officers familiar with Pakistan affairs, quote them as perturbed by the possible outcome of the present crisis in five areas:
1. Pro-Western Pakistan’s fall into the hands of Taliban and al Qaeda will strike the entire subcontinent like a bolt of lightening with destabilizing impact on Afghanistan, India, the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. There will then be two Islamic revolutionary regimes in power – in Tehran and Islamabad. Should they combine forces, they will make the Iraq war into a sideshow. America will be saddled with the colossal task of bolstering the moderate Arab regimes against the extremist Islamic tide.
Musharraf’s fall could hand high-quality fissile materials to al Qaeda
2. Pakistan’s nuclear armaments. The Taliban and al Qaeda if they get hold of its stock of bombs and missiles may sell them to Iran, just as they sold China the American cruise missiles fired against them on the orders of President Bill Clinton in 1988. A bigger worry is the prospect of Pakistan’s fissile materials falling in their hands, giving al Qaeda access for the first time to Western quality, high-grade nuclear materials. If Musharraf goes, Pakistani nuclear scientists may well go to work for al Qaeda.
3. The loyalties of the top echelons of Pakistan’s SIS intelligence service are a blank page in US covert books. They cannot tell if the officers Musharraf installed during is years in his power will remain loyal to him, or betray him to the opposition.
4. Another question mark hovers over the loyalties of the three Pakistan division commanders posted in Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Karachi. Will they obey the president’s orders to break up mass-demonstrations against him or stand aside?
This has not yet been tested since the protests have been small and the police dispersed them without difficulty. But vast masses, if they are rallied, will present a challenge of a different order if the army were to be ordered to open fire.
Bhutto has so far held her supporters down to small street protests. She is not anxious to topple the president, because she too would be cut out of the Pakistan equation if Muslim extremists who detest her came to power. However, the former prime minister is volatile and temperamental; she is capable of an impulsive misstep that would send the situation careening out of control.
5. A destabilized Pakistan could tip over into a civil flare-up between two of its four provinces, Sindh and Punjab.