It was the eighth assassination attempt on Pervez Musharraf since he seized power in Pakistan in October 1999 — and the second in 11 days.
By his own reckoning, an estimated 1 percent of Pakistan’s 150 million people are extremists, which is local patois for Islamist fanatics who would love to see Mr. Musharraf dead and the country in chaos. For this militant minority, Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted terrorist, is the second most popular man after the Prophet himself. Out of the ashes, they believe a nuclear-tipped Islamist phantasmagoria would rise to merge with a postmonarchy Saudi Arabia. Oil plus nukes is the vision the crazies share to level the playing field with the world’s only superpower.
Two months ago, bin Laden’s No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri’s voice was heard on an audiotape that appealed to all Pakistanis to overthrow Mr. Musharraf.
Swiss banking contacts have told this writer in the past two weeks that tens of billions of dollars have moved into Swiss accounts from the Gulf, mostly Saudi money no longer thought safe at home. Nor does it seem secure in the U.S. That may account, at least in part, for the dollar’s spectacular fall vis-a-vis the euro.
At a Christmas Day dinner, one knowledgeable Arab-born Swiss oil trader was even willing to bet “any amount of money” that the Saudi royal family would be history by the end of 2004. We took him on. Others around the table agreed the House of Saud was headed for oblivion, but that this would take a few more years. The oil trader then added, “Many princes have already sent their families out of the country and their Swiss and French residences, usually empty at this time of the year, are full.”
President Musharraf has a long history of appeasing extremists while backing the Bush administration against the same terrorists. The banning of extremist groups in Pakistan meant shingles would come down only to reopen a few days later under different names a few blocks away. One known terrorist was elected to parliament from a country club prison run by sympathetic jailers. Anyone seen cooperating either with U.S. intelligence or the U.S. military is perceived as betraying the sacred tenets of Islam.
The last two assassination attempts took place 10 miles from Islamabad, in Rawalpindi, a heavily guarded military garrison and army headquarters town going back to the days of the British Raj, a possible indication of military wire-pulling and/or intelligence conniving. Islamist fundamentalists exist at all levels of both the Pakistani Army and the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), possibly as high as 20 percent among junior officers, but no more than 5 percent at the field-grade level. They are particularly resentful of the way Mr. Musharraf ditched Pakistan’s pro-Taliban policy after September 11, 2001, and ordered the army to cooperate with U.S. Special Forces in their hunt for bin Laden in the jagged, snow-capped mountains that line some 1,500 miles of common border with Afghanistan.
In the last two years, some 500 al Qaeda terrorists were smoked out of lairs throughout Pakistan. Taliban operatives, on the other hand, come and go with impunity in most Pakistani towns and cities where many of them have homes.
Pakistan’s prestigious nuclear establishment is heavily fundamentalist, beginning with the father of its nuclear bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan. U.S. intelligence believes Pakistani scientists, behind Mr. Musharraf’s back, but with ISI complicity, shared its secrets with North Korea and Iran. Libya’s eccentric leader Moammar Gadhafi gave Pakistan generous dollops of hard currency for its nuclear program in its infancy. Col. Gadhafi talked expectantly about the coming “Islamic bomb.” To what extent Libya received help for its own nuclear weapons project, which Col. Gadhafi now wants to scrap under international control, is not known — yet.
Qadeer Khan, a Pakistani national hero, and two other nuclear scientists, were pulled in for questioning after the first of the last two attempts on Mr. Musharraf’s life. They denied any involvement with Iran. But what triggered the investigation was a close resemblance between the nuclear centrifuge designs in Pakistan and in Iran.
Prior to September 11, two Pakistani nuclear scientists journeyed to Kandahar, the religious capital of Afghanistan, to confer with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. They are also believed to have been introduced to Osama bin Laden. Former ISI chief Hamid Gul, a retired general who functions as “strategic adviser” to MMA, a coalition of six politico-religious parties, organized the trip.
When UPI broke the news of the nuclear visits to Taliban country, the Pakistani government lamely explained the trip was made to discuss an agricultural development project. Western intelligence agencies say a more plausible mission involved instructions on how to make a “dirty” radiological device. Sketches of radioactive materials wrapped around conventional explosives were found in al Qaeda safe houses after the liberation of Kabul.
As plotters prepared to assassinate Mr. Musharraf — who is known derisively as Busharraf for his close relationship with President Bush — security services pulled in three nuclear scientists for questioning about possible links to Iran’s nuclear establishment.
MMA governs the Northwest Frontier Province, one of the country’s four provinces, shares power in Baluchistan, and controls 20 percent of the seats in the federal assembly, where it is now the third-largest party.
The religious politicians have paralyzed the assembly by shouting demands that Mr. Musharraf relinquish his post as army chief of staff — the most powerful post in what is essentially a country of 150 million ruled by the military — and run for election as a civilian politician. The day before the most recent attempt on his life, Mr. Musharraf complied. He agreed to doff his uniform and four-star rank at the end of 2004. He also gave in to MMA’s other demands designed to water down Mr. Musharraf’s 29 draft constitutional amendments.
It was a crushing political defeat for the pro-American president. He gave up the power to dismiss the prime minister and dissolve parliament.
There is now little doubt that a mullah-cum-military alliance is emerging to the detriment of the close alliance Mr. Musharraf had forged with the Bush administration.
Nor does the Mr. Musharraf’s constant appeasement of the MMA bode well for Pakistan’s most urgent task — reform of the madrassa network of some 10,000 Koranic schools where America, Israel and India are depicted as evildoers whose unholy alliance is out to destroy Islam. The country’s clerics who run these jihadi (holy war) incubators and their MMA protectors have told government reformers to butt out. Some 5 million young Pakistani males have passed through the madrassa system since 1989 — 750,000 this past year alone.
The House of Saud must now face the evidence its clergy did not heed instructions to cease and desist undermining the future of Pakistan. Mr. Musharraf, for his part, must come to grips with the fact that Abdul Qadeer Khan, a revered national icon, is working the wrong side of the nuclear street. Fired three years ago by Mr. Musharraf, Mr. Qadeer apparently still believes in helping America’s enemies.
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.