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Why Pakistan Matters

The 9/11 Commission report maps out a U.S. policy toward Pakistan.

July 28, 2004

The 9/11 Commission report maps out a U.S. policy toward Pakistan.

Pakistan's proximity to Afghanistan has been both an impediment and — at times — an advantage to the U.S. effort to root out terrorism in Asia. Its entanglement with India and its nuclear proliferation have also been disputed subjects with the United States. However, as part of the final report from the 9/11 Commission shows, the United States needs to make a commitment to Pakistan to be successful in its war against terrorism.

Pakistan's endemic poverty, widespread corruption and often ineffective government create opportunities for Islamist recruitment.

Poor education is a particular concern. Millions of families — especially those with little money — send their children to religious schools, or madrassahs.

Many of these schools are the only opportunity available for an education, but some have been used as incubators for violent extremism. According to Karachi's police commander, there are 859 madrassahs teaching more than 200,000 youngsters in his city alone.

It is hard to overstate the importance of Pakistan in the struggle against Islamist terrorism. Within Pakistan's borders are 150 million Muslims, scores of al Qaeda terrorists, many Taliban fighters and — perhaps — Osama bin Laden.

Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons and has come frighteningly close to war with nuclear armed India over the disputed territory of Kashmir.

A political battle among anti-American Islamic fundamentalists, the Pakistani military and more moderate mainstream political forces has already spilled over into violence — and there have been repeated recent attempts to kill Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf.

In recent years, the United States has had three basic problems in its relationship with Pakistan:

On terrorism Pakistan helped nurture the Taliban. The Pakistani army and intelligence services, especially below the top ranks, have long been ambivalent about confronting Islamist extremists.

Many in the government have sympathized with — or provided support to — the extremists. Musharraf agreed that Osama bin Laden was bad. But before 9/11, preserving good relations with the Taliban took precedence.

On proliferation, Musharraf has repeatedly said that Pakistan does not barter with its nuclear technology. But proliferation concerns have been long-standing and very serious.

Most recently, the Pakistani government has claimed not to have known that one of its nuclear weapons developers, a national figure, was leading the most dangerous nuclear smuggling ring ever disclosed.

Finally, Pakistan has made little progress toward the return of democratic rule at the national level, although that turbulent process does continue to function at the provincial level and the Pakistani press remains relatively free.

Immediately after 9/11, confronted by the United States with a stark choice, Pakistan made a strategic decision. Its government stood aside and allowed the U.S.-led coalition to destroy the Taliban regime.

In other ways, Pakistan actively assisted: its authorities arrested more than 300 al Qaeda operatives and Taliban members and Pakistani forces played a leading part in tracking down Khaleed Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and other key al Qaeda figures.

In the following two years, the Pakistani government tried to walk the fence, helping against al Qaeda while seeking to avoid a larger confrontation with Taliban remnants and other Islamic extremists.

When al Qaeda and its Pakistani allies repeatedly tried to assassinate Musharraf, almost succeeding, the battle came home.

The country's vast unpoliced regions make Pakistan attractive to extremists seeking refuge and recruits and also provide a base for operations against coalition forces in Afghanistan.

Almost all the 9/11 attackers traveled the north-south nexus of Kandahar-Quetta-Karachi. The Baluchistan region of Pakistan (Khaleed Sheikh Mohammed's ethnic home) and the sprawling city of Karachi remain centers of Islamist extremism where the U.S. and Pakistani security and intelligence presence has been weak.

The U.S. consulate in Karachi is a makeshift fortress, reflecting the gravity of the surrounding threat.

During the winter of 2003-2004, Musharraf made another strategic decision. He ordered the Pakistani army into the frontier provinces of northwest Pakistan along the Afghan border, where bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri have reportedly taken refuge.

The army is confronting groups of al Qaeda fighters and their local allies in very difficult terrain. On the other side of the frontier, U.S. forces in Afghanistan have found it challenging to organize effective joint operations, given Pakistan's limited capabilities and reluctance to permit U.S. military operations on its soil.

Yet in 2004, it is clear that the Pakistani government is trying harder than ever before in the battle against Islamist terrorists.

Acknowledging these problems and Musharraf's own part in the story, we believe that Musharraf's government represents the best hope for stability in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In an extraordinary public essay asking how Muslims can "drag ourselves out of the pit we find ourselves in, to raise ourselves up," Musharraf has called for a strategy of "enlightened moderation."

The Muslim world, he said, should shun militancy and extremism. The West — and the United States in particular — should seek to resolve disputes with justice and help better the Muslim world.

Having come close to war in 2002 and 2003, Pakistan and India have recently made significant progress in peacefully discussing their long-standing differences. The United States has been — and should remain — a key supporter of that process.

The constant refrain of Pakistanis is that the United States long treated them as allies of convenience. As the United States makes fresh commitments now, it should make promises it is prepared to keep — for years to come.

If Musharraf stands for enlightened moderation in a fight for his life and for the life of his country, the United States should be willing to make hard choices, too — and make the difficult long-term commitment to the future of Pakistan.

Sustaining the current scale of aid to Pakistan, the United States should support Pakistan's government in its struggle against extremists with a comprehensive effort that extends from military aid to support for better education, so long as Pakistan's leaders remain willing to make difficult choices of their own.

Excerpted from the Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, Official Government Edition, published on July 22, 2004. For the full report, please click here.