The riots in Pakistan
are hardly news anymore: if they appear in the paper at all, it is on page C17,
between a story on starvation in the Sudan and a report that Mrs. McGillicuty
fell down the stairs. The riots continue nonetheless, seemingly unconcerned
that the rest of the world is no longer watching.
Perhaps it should. Periodic riots are normal in parts of the world; England
was famous for them in the 18th century. But when rioting continues
day after day, it can serve as a sort of thermometer, taking the temperature
of a population. Pakistan, it would seem, is running a fever, one that shows
little sign of breaking.
On the surface, the rioting is a protest against cartoons of Muhammad. Throughout
the Islamic world, the anti-cartoon demonstrations are both an expression of
rage at Islamic states' impotence and a demonstration of Islam's power outside
the state framework. But in Pakistan, the immediate target of the riots is all
too evident: Pakistani President Musharraf and his working relationship with
America's President Bush (in Pakistan, Musharraf is often called Busharraf).
After 9/11, when Bush announced that anyone in the world who was not with us
was with the terrorists, Musharraf had to make a strategic choice. He had to
make it fast, since America wanted to attack Afghanistan, and it needed Pakistan's
help to do so. Musharraf chose to ally with Bush. That choice has paid Pakistan
dividends internationally, but at a price: Musharraf's legitimacy at home became
dependent on the Pakistani people's view of America. In effect, Musharraf reincarnated
himself as a political satellite of Bush.
Not surprisingly, America's popularity among Pakistanis was not helped by our
invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The Taliban was largely a Pakistani creation,
and its fall was not welcomed in Pakistan, especially when Afghanistan's American-installed
president, Mr. Karzai, quickly cozied up to India.
Then, the strong American response to Pakistan's disastrous earthquake turned
Pakistani opinion around. Only America really came through for the tens of thousands
of people de-housed by the catastrophe, and other people noticed; when mullahs
in radical mosques denounced the Americans, their congregations told them they
Of course, America blew it in classic American fashion, with the Predator strike
on homes in a Pakistani border town. As always, the target wasn't there, because,
as always, we depended on intelligence from "systems" when only humint can do
the job. The resulting Pakistani civilian deaths threw away all the good will
we earned from the earthquake response and made America the Great Satan once
more. Musharraf paid the political price.
If the riots continue and grow, the Pakistani security forces responsible for
containing them will at some point go over and join the rioters. Musharraf will
try to get the last plane out; perhaps he will find Texas a congenial place
of exile. If he doesn't make that plane, his head will serve as a football,
not just of the political variety.
A new Pakistani government, in quest of legitimacy, will understand that comes
from opposing Bush's America, not getting in bed with it. Osama will be the
new honorary president of Pakistan, de facto if not de jure. Our
and NATO's operation in Afghanistan will become strategically unsustainable
overnight. That nice Mr. Karzai will, one hopes, find a seat on a C-17.
The fall of Pakistan to militant Islam will be a strategic disaster greater
than anything possible in Iraq, even losing an army. It will be a greater disaster
than a war with Iran that costs us our army in Iraq. Osama and Co. will have
nukes, missiles to deliver them, the best conventional armed forces in the Muslim
world, and an impregnable base for operations anywhere else. As North Korea's
Dear Leader has shown the world, nobody messes with you if you have nukes. Uncle
Sam takes off his battle rattle and asks Beijing, or somebody, if they can possibly
sponsor some talks.
That ticking sound Mr. Bush hears is not Mr. Cheney's pacemaker. It's the crocodile,
and he's getting rather close.