Paul Wolfowitz, in an interview with the Far Eastern Economic Review, calls it an “IOU.” Pakistan owes the U.S. something. What’s the debt? A debt of gratitude that the U.S. isn’t making a big deal out of the Abdul Qadeer Khan affair. Khan is the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, a national hero and icon, and, it was recently revealed, the biggest trafficker in nuclear secrets in history. I mean, he is so much what little Saddam was not, but his friend, Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf, lets him off scot-free, knowing that to punish him would be to enrage the Pakistani people who are already outraged by Musharraf’s close cooperation with the U.S.
According to Wolfowitz, “The international community” (this is a euphemism for “the United States,” comparable to the papal “we” in lieu of “I”) “is prepared to accept [Musharraf’s] pardon of A.Q. Khan for all he’s done, but it’s clearly a kind of IOU that, in return for that, there has to be a full accounting of everything that’s happened.” This suggests that Bush’s agreement not to make a big deal out of the sale of Pakistani nuclear secrets to Libya, Iran and North Korea merely requires in return detailed information about what information was shared.
But no, there’s more. Musharraf has been downplaying all along the presence of Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in Pakistan, at one point declaring confidently that Osama bin Laden was dead. The U.S. on the other hand believes that bin Laden and remaining al-Qaeda forces move back and forth across the Afghan-Pakistani border. Bush administration officials have repeatedly stated that Pakistan “could do more” to engage the enemy. This includes allowing U.S. forces into South Waziristan to direct operations. They don’t push Musharraf too hard, because they worry that if he becomes too closely associated with themselves, his people will topple him. But they welcome what Wolfowitz calls “leverage” to get Musharraf to move, and the Khan affair provides more leverage.
Musharraf’s a military dictator who seized power in a coup in 1999. It wasn’t the first military coup in Pakistan’s short history. Musharraf overthrew the democratically-elected president, Nawaz Sharif, whom he accused of trying to destabilize and politicize the army. His power-base is weak, and he must court, among others, tribesmen sympathetic to the Taliban. He hasn’t delivered on promises to end corruption and provide stability and prosperity. Bin Laden probably has more support in Pakistan than he does. The dictator’s military is riddled with pro-Taliban officers; the Taliban was, after all, largely a creation of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), and there seem to be enduring ties between some folks in the Pakistani military and the Talibs. Musharraf under enormous U.S. pressure cut ties with the Taliban after 9-11 and allowed his country to be used as a base of operations against Afghanistan. He had no choice; he had to be either with or against the U.S. But longstanding ties between the Taliban and Pakistan’s military surely persist, along with the possibility of yet another coup—this time targeting Musharraf.
The “IOU” to which Wolfowitz alludes is Musharraf’s obligation to risk his own political career in order to enhance the prospects for the capture or killing of bin Laden—or at least to produce some major trophy—before the U.S. November elections. The problem is, of course, that while bowing to U.S. pressure he might expose his neck to some disgruntled commanders, who might just decide to hack it off to preserve the dignity of the Islamic state. It’s been reported that some officers recently plotted a coup that would have brought A. Q. Khan to the presidency. This would have met with ecstatic popular approval. Uneasily positioned between his people and general staff on the one hand, and the dictates of the Bush administration on the other, Musharraf doesn’t have the highest credit rating.
Let us say he can’t pay his IOU. Let’s say another dictator, or junta, emerges to affect regime change, and with the current U.S. favorite dead or behind bars, tells the world:
“In the Name of God, the Merciful and Compassionate.
“We continue to feel sorry for the suffering the U.S. experienced on 9-11. We understand why the U.S. found it necessary to attack our neighbor, Afghanistan, and change the regime there. But we only agreed, under enormous U.S. pressure, to cut off our ties with the Taliban, which had been friendly. We recommended that the Americans negotiate the handover of Osama bin Laden, but they insisted on invading and occupying our neighbor. They have re-established the warlord regime that ruled from 1992 to 1996, a regime so brutal that Afghans rallied to the Taliban cause.
“We Pakistanis supported the Talibs, thinking they would bring peace and stability, and allow us access to trade routes into Central Asia. They did these things. They allowed al-Qaeda to operate, using camps the Americans established in the 1980s when the U.S., the Saudis and ourselves were all working together to topple the pro-Soviet government. The Americans themselves allowed bin Laden to settle in Afghanistan after arranging his flight from Sudan in 1996. Their State Department didn’t think he would pose a threat from Afghanistan. He arrived before the Taliban took power, but he forged an alliance with them while Washington was discussing pipelines and opium eradication with them, and Zalmay Khalilzad was treating them to dinner on his Texas ranch.
“We think the Taliban made a big mistake treating al-Qaeda so cordially. But we don’t think the Talibs were all bad, especially when compared to the Northern Alliance warlords like Ismail Khan and Ahmad Rashid Dostum, the men they replaced and who are now back in power. We have no evidence that the Taliban even knew of plans for the 9-11 attacks. The Taliban is resurgent; and has regained control over some Pashtun areas. President Karzai, a U.S. puppet surrounded by American bodyguards, now even talks about including some of them in his government. So if some of them enter our territory, and receive local hospitality, we are not overly concerned.
“We will continue watching for al-Qaeda. We’ve already turned 500 captured al-Qaeda over to the U.S. But we will be less aggressive in the hunt. Our troops have killed innocent civilians in these border operations the Americans demanded we undertake. They have not been popular, and we cannot continue them indefinitely. Other matters, such as Kashmir, are more important to us.
“Mr. bin Laden could be in Pakistan, Uzbekistan, China or elsewhere. We have no information that he is in Pakistan. If we find him, we will turn him over to the U.S., even though there will be riots in our streets. He is very popular in Pakistan. We suggest the Americans ask themselves why.
“We have decided to deny foreign forces access to our Pasni and Jacobabad military bases. This is in deference to popular opinion in our country. The masses are offended that our Islamic state cooperates militarily with a nation that has bombed and occupied two Muslim countries and threatens to attack more.
“Pakistan is an independent country, with an independent foreign policy. We are a nuclear power, and demand respect. The former president humiliated the nation and offended our religion by accepting all U.S. demands. For such offenses, he has been removed.”
Now, this is all in my imagination, of course, and you might say it’s unlikely. But so far Musharraf’s compliance has been bought with carrots (the lifting of sanctions imposed when Pakistan went nuclear in 1998, generous economic and military aid, the designation “major non-NATO ally” which allows for expanded arms purchases, avoidance of criticism of the dictatorship) and sticks (the threat of being designated “against us,” the threat of greater U.S. cooperation with arch-rival India). As we speak I just bet you that there are Pakistani officers weighing the carrots and sticks and thinking:
“Aside from the F-16s, we’re not getting that much out of this. The damage to our economy of the U.S. alliance far outweighs the aid they give, and the people really want the U.S. troops out of the region. If we start saying ‘No’ to the Americans, there really isn’t that much they can do. We have other friends, like China. If the Americans attack Syria, they’ll confirm what we suspect: they want to attack all Islam. If Musharraf won’t stand up to them then, we will have to move forward and stage the coup.”
Then who will pay Musharraf’s IOU?
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa, Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa, Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org