Musharraf has fallen, but has he fallen too late to save Pakistan and Afghanistan? As Ahmed Rashid pointed out a year ago, when the US made its deal with Musharraf, what happened is that Pakistan "went after" al-Qaeda, but at the same time they spent money and time helping the Taliban. The Taliban originally came to power with the help of Pakistan’s intelligence service, it was their creation, and they saw no reason to give it up. So they told Americans, specifically they told Cheney’s office, which froze out State, as usual, what they wanted to hear. Then they continued the policies of the 90s.
This makes a certain amount of sense if you’re Pakistan – play both ends and no matter who wins, you’re golden. Help the US and if the US’s puppet government actually takes effective control of Afghanistan, well, that’s good. Keep helping the Taliban and if they win, well, they’re still your boys. How can you lose?
Meanwhile, Musharraf’s relationship with the West disintegrated as the Taliban gained ground in Afghanistan, using its bases in Pakistan. There was a Taliban blowback inside Pakistan as the Pakistani Pashtun tribesmen who protected bin Laden and the Afghan Taliban when they retreated to Pakistan in 2001 were themselves radicalized. They formed their own militias with their own agenda: to turn Pakistan into an Islamic Taliban-style state. In December, they assassinated the one person who could have pulled the country together — PPP leader Benazir Bhutto.
Benazir, of course, died because Musharraf did not give her adequate security, something she noted before her death.
By tolerating the Taliban presence, and then by failing to remove the Taliban while using force against the Pashtun tribesmen in the area, Musharraf radicalized them and turned them into dagger aimed at Pakistan’s heart.
US Pakistan policy was run out of Cheney’s office, though State was certainly complicit. For years we’ve been reading about continued ISI support for the Taliban, and the US just looked the other way. Then when Musharraf was in trouble domestically, the US mostly stuck by him instead of telling him it was time to step down.
Afghanistan is an issue because it can be used as a base for training mujahadeen. Pakistan is an issue because it has nukes. Cheney’s support for Musharraf’s policies has put Pakistan into play.
There are two extremely important pieces on the global chessboard for al-Qaeda (or, if you prefer, for those who want a Caliphate. Al-Qaeda is more of an ideology these days than an organization perhaps, but it is more dangerous as such.) They are Pakistan with its nukes "no you can’t interfere with us militarily, because we have nukes" and Saudi Arabia, "now we control the world’s key oil producer, and any Muslim who wants to do their Haj must come to us."
One of those two pieces is now threatened. Let’s hope that Pakistan’s unwieldy and fractious coalition government is able to work with the military to do something about it. And let’s hope someone in Pakistan finally grabs the bull by the horns and purges the ISI.
Or in a few years we may be talking about a much worse form of blowback than 9/11.