Pakistanis Wonder - Will They Face Iraq's Fate?
ISLAMABAD (Reuters - 21 April) - It has nuclear weapons, a general as president, an increasingly powerful Islamist fringe, and it is accused of supporting terrorism in another country.
No wonder some Pakistanis worry that their country will one day face a similar fate to Iraq and fall victim to the new American doctrine of pre-emptive strike.
Neighbor and nuclear-armed rival India is already trying to make the connection. Ironically, but for different reasons, so are the Islamists in Pakistan themselves.
``Thinking that our turn will not come is like closing your eyes to the truth,'' Qazi Hussain Ahmed, leader of Pakistan's biggest Islamist party, told Reuters in a recent interview.
``America...does not want (Muslims) to be able to defend themselves.''
Absurd, say Western diplomats. Secretary of State Colin Powell has already ruled out Indian suggestions that Islamabad's government could be compared to Iraq's.
Islamists, diplomats say, are simply trying to scare-monger, and undermine a solid partnership between Pakistan and the West.
``Definitely the West wants to remain engaged with Pakistan,'' said one Western diplomat. Dialogue not confrontation, he said, was the key to the West's relationship with the nuclear-armed Muslim state of 140 million people.
President Pervez Musharraf may have his faults in Western eyes, but he has been a solid partner in the war on terror, supporting military action in Afghanistan and rounding up several key al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan.
Removing him or trying to forcibly disarm Pakistan would only play into the hands of the extremists and make the country 100 times more unstable, diplomats say.
Yet behind the politics and propaganda, Pakistan was arguably on the road to becoming a ``rogue state'' under the chaotic second term of Nawaz Sharif, before Musharraf toppled him in his 1999 military coup.
Pakistan's liberal intellectuals fear the country could easily go down that road again one day, especially as Islamist parties exploit anti-American sentiment to expand their powers.
Pakistan, some critics argue, is also playing with fire by supporting jihadis, or holy warriors, fighting Indian rule in Kashmir -- something India refers to as ``cross-border terrorism,'' although Islamabad denies the charge.
A.H. Nayyar, research fellow at Islamabad's Sustainable Development Policy Institute, says the world's nuclear powers are worried about a nuclear-armed subcontinent with India and Pakistan constantly on the verge of war.
When push comes to shove, it is India and not Pakistan with whom the West will side, he says.
``So all of them would like to seize the first opportunity that comes their way to de-fang Pakistan,'' said Nayyar.
``They only have to build up the case, like they have done with other countries and behold, within months you will not find a single person who will be sympathetic to Pakistan.''
Nayyar fears the United States would not hesitate to ``neutralize'' Pakistan's nuclear weapons if that became necessary, or could use India as a proxy for the same purpose.
Selig S. Harrison, director of the Center for International Policy research group in Washington, said that despite ``clear evidence'' Pakistan had provided communist North Korea with nuclear technology, the United States was doing nothing to punish Islamabad or prevent it from helping a country branded part of an axis of evil along with pre-war Iraq and Iran.
``The United States need not make an either-or choice between keeping Pakistan as an ally against al Qaeda and making sure that it stops transferring nuclear technology,'' he wrote in the International Herald Tribune.
``Both critical objectives can be achieved with a determined carrot-and-stick diplomacy.''
Pakistan denies transferring nuclear technology.
It may sound far-fetched at the moment, but Musharraf knows his country faces some tough choices in the years ahead, and will have to confront Islamic extremism if it is to remain a trusted nuclear power.
``Our power, the atomic power, the missile power, we will not let it come to an end,'' he told an audience of tribal elders in the North West Frontier Province this month.
``The question arises what should be our attitude toward the world,'' he said. ``We have two paths in front of us. One path is that of confrontation. The other path is of forbearance.''
``In my view the path of forbearance is in Pakistan's interest.''