Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf apparently isn't a student of history. Before embarking on his disastrous policy of appeasement with Al Qaida and the Taliban in the western tribal lands, one would have hoped that Mr. Musharaaf would have reviewed European history from the past century, for past examples of trying to appease fanatics, and how those acts ultimately led to a greater conflagration.
We know what happened when the British and the French tried to placate Hitler in the 1930s. When his nascent German Army rolled into the Rhineland in 1936, the British and French ignored an opportunity to crush Hitler's legions, and registered only mild diplomatic protests. When the German dictator demanded Czechoslovakia a few years later, London and Paris willingly gave away a democratic state, all in hopes of appeasing a growing menace. By the time Hitler's panzers rolled into Poland in 1939, it was too late. Over the next six years, millions died and vast stretches of Europe, Africa and Asia were laid to waste, largely because European politicians of the 1930s believed they could negotiate with a madman.
There are obvious--and eerie--parallels between the situation in Europe 70 years ago, and events that are now transpiring in Pakistan. Bill Roggio, who has covered the consequences of Musharraf's appeasement policies better than anyone, is now reporting that the situation along Pakistan's western border is growing steadily worse, despite a series of "agreements" between the Islamabad government, and tribal factions that are loyal or (or controlled) by the Taliban and Al Qaida.
And, predictably, the terrorists aren't satisfied with merely dominating the vast, rugged lands along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The influence of Al Qaida and Taliban elements is now spreading to some of Pakistan's urban centers, posing an even greater security challenge to the Musharraf. In his latest post, Bill notes that the terrorists are openly challenging the rule of law in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. A pro-Taliban militia is running a Saudi-style fundamentalist madrassa in the heart of Islamabad, with a reputed enrollment of more than 7,000 students. Members of the group engage in "moral policing" around the city, threatening shop owners who sell DVDs, CDs, or other western offerings. Reaction from the government has been muted, at best.
Mr. Roggio describes this as a "civil war at the peripheries," or (at the very least), the wholesale surrender of territory by the Musharraf government. In either case, the terrorists have been emboldened by the recent Waziristan accords, which they view as a sign of weakness. Their successful efforts at influencing events in Islamabad will likely accelerate this trend. As Roggio notes, the Islamists are operating without fear or impunity. The location of the Islamabad madrassa--between the Prime Minister's office and the headquarters of Pakistan's intelligence service (the ISI)--would have been almost unthinkable a few years ago.
Which brings us back to President Musharaaf, and his "plans" for dealing with this threat. The "X" factor is this equation isn't the Pakistani public--or even the United States--but rather, the senior officer corps of the nation's military. Musharaaf is, of course, a former general, the fourth who has served as the nation's leader during Pakistan's turbulent history. Mr. Musharaaf meets with the military's senior leaders, or more specifically, the Army's ranking officers, on a regular basis. Bottom line: how much longer will the military allow the unrest to continue before a corps or field army commander decides that enough is enough, and it's time for a change.
Under normal circumstances, the tipping point for President Musharaaf might already be at hand. But Taliban penetration of the ISI makes it more difficult to marshal supporters for a potential coup; clearly terrorist sympathizers within the intelligence directorate prefer the status quo, and the continuing slide toward chaos, followed by a transition to fundamentalist rule. On the other hand, other elements of the armed services (with a more western orientation) are clearly concerned about the growing influence of the terrorists, but--so far--seem unable or unwilling to do anything about it.
Clearly, any comparision between the Pakistan of today and Britain and France of the 1930s is inexact, at best. The threat posed by a resugent Germany was an external one; the dangers presented by the Taliban and Al Qaida are internal to Pakistan. Yet, in many respects, the analogy remains valid. Like Neville Chamberlain, Mr. Musharraf seems to believe that he can negotiate his way to security, despite the savage and completely disreputable nature of his foes. And, the lethargy of Pakistan's military seems oddly reminiscent of the French Army of the the pre-war era; institutions that appear impressive on paper (and in parades), but in reality, are little more than paper tigers, unable to meet emerging threats.
From the U.S. perspective, the deteriorating situation in Pakistan should be viewed with great alarm. The Bush Administration still viewed Musharaaf as an "important" ally in the War on Terror, even as his government brokered deals with terrorists in the tribal lands. Never mind that those agreements created new safe havens for the Taliban and Al Qaida to launch attacks into Afghanistan; Musharaaf got the benefit of the doubt, largely because of his past stand against the terrorists.
Given the current situation in Pakistan, Washington would be well-advised to keep its options open. Musharraf's survival is hardly assured, and I'm hoping that the folks at DIA, CIA and the National Security Council have been keeping track of potential successors. Obviously, we'd prefer someone from the "western" wing of the military, capable of restoring security in Islamabad and other key cities, then (eventually) resuming the fight against terrorists in the tribal lands. The question, of course, is whether Pakistan's general staff can find someone willing to take on this menace, or if Musharraf's appeasement policies have left the military divided and distracted.
For the sake of Pakistan's future--and stability on the Asian subcontinent, we'd better hope that the answer to that question lies in the former option, and not the latter. The real prize for control of the country lies in the heavily-guarded caves and bunkers of the Pakistani mountains, where the nation's nuclear weapons are stored. Imagine an Al Qaida/Taliban regime with nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, and you've got some idea of the nightmare that could emerge in Pakistan.