Absurdistan

By

When it comes to nuclear secrets, we've learned the hard way that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's government leaks like a sieve. But, when it comes to the juicy bits from his new memoir, In the Line of Fire, Musharraf's lips are sealed. That was clear during his U.S. publicity tour this week, which even included a visit with "The Daily Show"'s Jon Stewart. (What's next,

Ahmadinejad on Colbert?) When reporters asked Musharraf to elaborate on his improbable assertion that, after September 11, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage threatened to bomb Pakistan "back to the stone age," the gentle military dictator demurred. "I am honor-bound to Simon and Schuster not to comment on the book" before its publication date, he explained. If only Simon & Schuster had such power over A.Q. Kahn! Also in Washington this week was Musharraf neighboring leader, Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, conducting some p.r. work of his own--last month, The New York Times reported that Karzai faces a "crisis of confidence" in his leadership. Appearing on Sunday's "Meet the Press" (Musharraf isn't the only one with a publicist), Karzai launched his comeback tour by confessing that he had been "naive"--a trait hardly suited for the land of Osama bin Laden--in his thinking about fighting Afghanistan's booming opium trade. Karzai also complained that Musharraf has turned a blind eye to border-area Islamic radicals, prompting Musharraf to later retort that Karzai may not be cut out for his job.

Watching these two men bicker and spin like a pair of junior congressmen, it's hard to feel sanguine about the future of the region. It's a war-on- terrorism nightmare: Where else can you find fully assembled nuclear weapons in the same neighborhood as well-organized Islamic militants--not to mention Osama bin Laden himself? And neither Musharraf nor Karzai seems to have a clue about how to improve the situation.

Musharraf, who has placated Pakistani jihadists, is the main culprit. Thanks, in part, to havens established along his border, the Taliban has recently launched its strongest counteroffensive in Afghanistan since its downfall in 2001. Foreign jihadists--again, streaming in from Pakistan--have introduced suicide-bombing to cities like Kabul, and they methodically burn down newly opened girls' schools. Sharia courts and public executions are, once again, springing up in the south. Karzai, meanwhile, has also displayed, in the Times' words, a "tendency to placate powerful armed factions rather than make tough decisions to improve governance."

Even Condoleezza Rice seems to appreciate the danger at hand, recently warning of Afghanistan that, "if you allow a failed state in that strategic a location, you're going to pay for it." But that's precisely what the Bush administration risks doing. Nato recently rebuffed its military chief's plea for another 2,500 troops to help fight the jihadists. Meanwhile, the top American commander in the country recently told Newsweek that more infrastructure investment is urgently needed--thanks, in part, to stingy spending by the United States and its allies. "Whatever it costs ... we will pay," George Bush, referring to Afghanistan, vowed in his 2002 State of the Union speech. Perhaps he should go back and reread it.

But saving Afghanistan would be far easier if Musharraf ruled as deftly as he hawks his book. In it, he says his goal is to project a "soft image" of Pakistan--not one of "terrorism and extremism," but of "tourism, sports, and culture." Alas, stopping terrorism must come before cricket.

Musharraf may be better than most alternatives. But one wonders how long his game can go on. Earlier this month, he cut a deal with Islamic militants in his country's tribal region along the border with Afghanistan. Although many Afghan officials openly fret that the deal will give Al Qaeda and Taliban militants along the border more freedom to wreak havoc in their country, Musharraf insists that it won't. And, for now, the White House is buying it. "When [Musharraf] looks me in the eye and says the tribal deal is intended to reject the Talibanization of the people, and that there won't be a Taliban and won't be Al Qaeda, I believe him," Bush said last week. But, of course, Bush has looked others in the eye (Vladimir Putin, Ahmed Chalabi) and been proved utterly wrong. We can only hope his instincts have sharpened and that our current fixation on the Persian Gulf doesn't distract us from preventing a South Asian disaster. After all, if bin Laden gets the Bomb, not even the Simon & Schuster publicity department will be able to stop him.

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This article originally ran in the October 9, 2006, issue of the magazine.

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