- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 5, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The United States is attempting to achieve successful outcomes for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq while trying to resolve testy issues with Iran and North Korea, but its greatest challenge may be effectively handling Pakistan’s tenuous situation. This important war on terror ally may be near the cusp of a cataclysmic explosion.

The Free World’s greatest fear is for Islamic extremist groups like al Qaeda or the Taliban to obtain nuclear weapons. Pakistan presents the greatest possibility.It’s the only Muslim nation with a nuclear arsenal, reportedly containing about 50 warheads fully prepped for immediate aircraft and/or missile delivery on enemies. It also has significant problems, which may impede the government’s ability to adequately safeguard the nuclear weapons. The vast majority of the country’s 165 million citizens suffer from freedom deprivation, severe illiteracy, rampant poverty and foreign and locally-bred terrorism. For example:

• The military has ruled the country for 40 of its 60-year existence, including the last eight years, often by martial law.

• More than half the population cannot read or write.

• The per capita GDP of $2,600 is about 75 percent below the world average.

• Al Qaeda, the Taliban and other Islamic terror groups use Pakistan’s lawless tribal area along the northwestern Afghanistan border area as a sanctuary, jihad training center and base of operations.

• An indeterminable number of the 13,000 Islamic religious schools (madrassas) teach the nation’s uneducated and impoverished youth the holy war doctrine and serve as jihad enlistment centers.

• Locally-incubated Islamist extremists are imbued in the vaunted Army and Inter-Services Intelligence apparatus in alarming numbers.

The country also suffers from other serious difficulties, such as ethnic regional rivalries, sectarian strife and the after-effects of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination and assassination attempts on President Pervez Musharraf.

Some Americans blame Mr. Musharraf for not doing enough to improve the situation. Those critics could better serve America’s security interests by offering balanced commentary and thoughtful suggestions, not finger pointing.

Since allying with the United States after September 11, Mr. Musharraf has: (1) stepped down as Army chief and agreed to hold democratic parliamentary elections this month; (2) allowed the United States to use the country’s military bases and airspace to wage war in Afghanistan; (3) implemented sophisticated command and control security measures to safeguard nuclear weapons; (4) attempted to exert greater government control over madrassas; (5) adopted economic policies which raised the per capita GDP from $600 to $2,600; (6) sent more than 80,000 troops into the lawless tribal area attempting to uproot terrorists, all while taking heavy casualties; and (7) captured or killed more than 700 al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, including the September 11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad; USS Cole bombing suspect, Walid Bin Attash; and Daniel Pearl murder-suspect, Amjad Farooqi.

Although these actions are helpful, they’re not enough. Pakistan could do two things to diminish the Islamic extremist threat: develop an unconventional warfare capability and cut off the stream of jihadis coming out of madrassas. Pakistan hasn’t been able to succeed in pacifying the lawless tribal region and elsewhere because it’s using conventional troops, weapons and tactics against enemies who don’t wear uniforms, carry weapons openly or abide by international war rules. It needs to transition to an unconventional war footing (special military forces working with local populations and performingclandestine operations) but presently doesn’t have this capability. The United States offered to provide training, advice and support, but Pakistan’s government hasn’t fully accepted the offer yet, apparently out of concern that it might inflame the passions of a population generally distrustful of American motives.

The September 11 Commission describes Pakistan madrassas as “incubators of violent extremism.” One estimate places the number at about 13,000 religious schools with nearly 2 million students attending them. Madrassas are an outgrowth of a dysfunctional education system whereby only about 50 percent of Pakistani children attend school. The most radical schools provide a steady stream of jihadis to various extremist groups, and very little education outside Koran studies. The entire education system needs to be built, probably with substantial U.S. assistance, to curb madrassas’ sinister activities and reduce illiteracy, which saps the nation’s potential. Islamic extremists gained a strong foothold in Pakistan during Gen. Zia’s 1977 to 1988 rule. Their influence and capabilities expanded during the 1990s, when the United States largely abandoned the country shortly after the Soviet Union’s defeat in Afghanistan and today they pose a clear and present danger to the country and its nuclear arsenal.

It’s in the core national security interest of the United States to help Pakistan effectively confront thisthreat, survive as a nation, remain an American ally, and move forward into the 21st century as a free country.It may take time and won’t be easy, but it could be one of the wisest investments the United States ever made.

Fred Gedrich is a foreign policy and national security analyst. He served in the Departments of State and Defense.

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