Thursday, November 6, 2003

The predictable deluge of categorical denials from Islamabad and less categorical versions from Riyadh flooded the Internet on queue. This reporter wrote from Pakistan last week that Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Abdullah and President Pervez Musharraf had reached a secret understanding when they met on Oct. 20: Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal would provide the kingdom a nuclear “deterrent” in case of need.

Saudi Arabia worries about (1) the future of the House of Saud; (2) Iran’s nuclear ambitions; and (3) Israel’s monopoly of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Pakistan has similar worries about Israel’s recent $1 billion arms deal with India, also a major nuclear power and Pakistan’s archrival.

Add to the volatile geopolitical mix a sudden fear, shared by Gen. Musharraf and Prince Abdullah, that the U.S. could go down to defeat in Iraq, as it did in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia. The two leaders, which we did not know when we filed our first report from Islamabad, decided they could not stand idly by and must respond positively to Bush administration entreaties for troop contributions. For this to happen, they would have to water down their preconditions of a Security Council resolution and an invitation from an elected representative Iraqi government. This is still too far in the future, and the need is now.

Both Mr. Musharraf and Prince Abdullah have concluded that a U.S. defeat — or anything that could be perceived as a U.S. humiliation — would have catastrophic repercussions for their regimes and for every other moderate government from Morocco to Malaysia and Indonesia on either side of the Malacca Strait.

Under a scenario worked out by the two heads of state in Islamabad on Oct. 20, the Saudis would be the first to step up to the Iraqi plate with a token force, followed quickly by Pakistan with a large force of approximately 15,000. But this would still require an Iraqi governing council that stops squabbling over turf and begins to think and act like a real government.

Mr. Musharraf’s calculation is that when the Saudis dispatch a token force to Iraq, he will then be in a position to silence his own tough critics in Pakistan’s two mainstream political parties, as well as the coalition of six politico-religious leaders known as the Muttahida-e-Majlis-e-Amal or MMA. Presumably none would dare criticize Saudi Arabia since MMA’s honchos are still receiving Saudi financial support for both political parties and radical madrassas (that continue to disobey Mr. Musharraf’s orders for a modern syllabus). The clergy’s recent fatwa against any Pakistani soldier who sets foot on Iraqi soil with a weapon would presumably become null and void.

Many things can still go awry. But for now, Prince Abdullah has succeeded in making Mr. Musharraf accept President Bush’s Iraqi case as well as its own. The Saudis find it intolerable that the only nuclear power in the Middle East (Iran is not an Arab country) is Israel. They confide that as long as the strategic equation is skewered in favor of Israel there will be no Palestinian state.

The Saudis were shocked in March 2002 at an Arab summit in Beirut when Prince Abdullah managed to get the entire Arab League to approve normal diplomatic and economic relations between Israel and 22 Arab countries in return for the pre-June 1967 war frontiers — without so much as a beep out of Jerusalem or Washington.

Both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia routinely deny anything of importance their governments haven’t released to the media. For 11 consecutive years, the late Pakistani military dictator, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, dismissed stories about his secret nuclear weapons program as either poppycock or balderdash. When this writer suggested to him in 1982 he would be better off going public instead of denying what every Western intelligence knew to be true, he said, “You have my word of honor, Arnaud, we are not developing nuclear weapons nor do we have any interest in acquiring any.”

During those 11 years, ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence agency) agents had been dispatched to every country that had built a nuclear plant “to spy or steal” for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. And after Gen. Zia was killed in a mysterious air crash, successive Pakistani presidents and prime ministers continued Zia’s tradition of the big lie repeated often enough to demonstrate that artificial intelligence is no match for stupidity.

In 2001, three months prior to September 11, 2001, Mr. Musharraf sent his foreign minister to Washington to deliver Pakistan’s word of honor that it was not assisting the Taliban. Two weeks before that, this reporter traveled from Quetta, the capital of Pakistani Baluchistan, and Kandahar, then the religious capital of Mullah Omar’s medieval theocracy, and saw scores of Pakistani supply trucks on the only road into southwestern Afghanistan.

After September 11 and just before the U.S. unleashed Operation Enduring Freedom on Oct. 7, Mr. Musharraf dispatched ISI chief Gen. Mahmoud Ahmad to Kandahar to instruct Mullah Omar to turn over Osama bin Laden to avoid war. Instead, the chief spook of an all-powerful agency advised Mullah Omar to hang on to bin Laden. Again, spirited denials and denunciations of a lying Western media. Two days before the first U.S. bombs fell, Mr. Musharraf fired and retired Gen. Ahmad.

President Musharraf has denied almost everything of any importance that might lead Washington to question his loyalty. The exchange of nuclear technology for North Korean missiles? Never happened. ISI’s links to al Qaeda? Bullfeathers. ISI-supervised training camps for Kashmiri jihadis (holy warriors)? Horsefeathers. ISI’s involvement in the December 2001 terrorist attack against the Indian parliament in New Delhi? Media garbage. ISI’s knowledge of the executioners of the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl? Twaddle in all its unrationed splendor.

While Mr. Musharraf was meeting with President Bush at Camp David on June 24, Gen. Aziz Khan, chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, a largely ceremonial post, denounced the U.S. at a public gathering in Rawalakot, Kashmir: “America is the No. 1 enemy of the Muslim world and is conspiring against Muslim nations all over the world.” Pakistani papers were advised to spike the story. To inquiring foreigners, the government said it was yet another anti-Pakistani lie.

Growing opposition to Mr. Musharraf in the army? This is not denied because it hasn’t been published yet. The president’s stated desire to continue as chief of army staff (COAS) — the top military post — for at least one more year has led to scuffling in the wheelhouse of the ship of state. Seven full generals are due to retire before that time — without a crack at COAS. Aziz Khan, a fundamentalist, is one of them. Denials to come.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and editor in chief of United Press International.

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