Pakistan: The Next Nuclear Nightmare?

This weekend’s dramatic attack on the army headquarters in Rawalpindi, the military center of Pakistan, underscores the volatility and fragility of politics in the world’s second largest Muslim country. The Taliban attackers demonstrated that despite losing the campaign in the Swat Valley this summer, they retain the capacity for terror in the heart of Pakistan – striking, in effect, into the Pentagon of Pakistan. And the attack, which left 16 dead, will almost certainly revive concerns about the capacity of the Pakistani army to protect its nuclear arsenal. If the Taliban can get into army headquarters, where else might it strike next?

The good news is the army has spent a great deal of effort and resources on protecting what is the world’s fastest growing nuclear arsenal. An entire corps of the army is now devoted to securing and defending Pakistan’s weapons from any potential threat. It may not be foolproof, but it is a serious effort.

The bad news is many Pakistanis, including many in the army, believe the United States is a bigger threat to their weapons of mass destruction than anyone else. Poll after poll shows Pakistanis increasingly do fear the threat posed by Islamic extremists like the Taliban and its ally al Qaeda, but they believe the U.S. is an even bigger danger to their country, the only Muslim state with nuclear weapons. Polls show that more Pakistanis believe the U.S. is a threat to their country than India, and any time you outpoll India as the bad guy in Pakistan, you are in deep trouble.

It is against this background of deep animosity to the U.S. that Pakistanis are watching the debate inside the Obama administration about the future of the NATO mission in neighboring Afghanistan. Many in Pakistan have always believed the Americans are not really serious about Afghanistan. They recall that the U.S. supported Pakistan and the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s only to abandon both once the Soviets left. They watched as the Bush administration under-resourced the war in Afghanistan for seven years after the 9/11 attacks, ignoring the advice of his commanders there and allowing the Taliban to stage a remarkable military comeback. They follow the polls in this country and in other NATO countries that show growing war weariness and opposition to sending more troops to Afghanistan.

They also hear the enemies’ taunting messages. Osama bin Laden told Europeans last month that America will cut and run soon, and they should get out before the Americans leave so they don’t have to face the jihad alone. Bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, this month lauded Beitullah Mehsud, the former head of the Pakistani Taliban who was killed by a CIA drone, for bringing Pakistan to the edge of an Islamic revolution and promised to push on to victory.

Ironically, the army’s offensive in Swat and the growing backlash among the public against the Taliban and al Qaeda offer Washington an opportunity. Pakistanis are not about to change their deep animosity toward the United States. When Congress finally passed the Kerry-Lugar legislation this month to triple economic aid to Pakistan, the Pakistanis focused on the objectionable but hortatory language about past Pakistani sins rather than the fact that American aid is about to rise to $1.5 billion a year.

But we can encourage Pakistan to keep moving against the extremists. President Asif Ali Zardari wants to do so because they killed his wife, Benazir Bhutto. The attack on army headquarters this weekend should focus the minds of more generals about the danger of letting the Islamic Frankenstein grow. The public seems to be coming around. Pakistan says it is getting ready to take the war into Waziristan along the border with Afghanistan, where the CIA drones have been most active against al Qaeda.

In this atmosphere, the president and his team need to remember that everything he does in Afghanistan affects what happens next door. If he shows resolve in Afghanistan, Pakistanis won’t love us, but they will believe we are serious and determined to stay until a stable Afghanistan and Pakistan emerges. If it appears the United States cannot make up its mind about what to do, then Pakistanis will say I told you so and make their own accommodations.