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 were wrong.
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.