Henry Kissinger once quipped that being America's ally is more dangerous than being its enemy. The latest example: Washington is abuzz with leaks the Bush administration plans to dump its faithful but embattled Pakistani retainer, Gen. Pervez Musarraf, and replace him with a new general or a co-operative civilian-led government.
This column already reported Washington's "regime change" plans a week ago, citing vice chief of staff Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani as Musharraf's most likely replacement. As turmoil spreads across Pakistan, Musharraf's grip on power daily grows weaker.
White House efforts to broker a shotgun marriage between Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto seem to have failed. She just told me there would be no deal with Musharraf, period. But one never knows. Bhutto also told me she was wisely reaching out to Pakistan's leading Islamic Party, Jamiat Islami.
For the first time, I hear Pakistanis calling Musharraf, "pharaoh." This is a storm warning signal. "Pharoah" is what Iranians called their hated, U.S.-backed Shah, and Egyptians the equally hated U.S.-installed dictator, Anwar Sadat. They now use the same epithet for Egypt's current military ruler, Hosni Mubarak. The Shah was overthrown by a popular revolution; Sadat was assassinated to national joy; and Mubarak is in deepening trouble.
America's profoundly counter-productive policy in the Muslim World has been to support dictators and monarchs who follow Washington's orders, no matter how unpopular or bitterly opposed, rather than nurturing genuinely popular, democratic governments.
Musharraf's nasty dictatorship is the latest example. Washington forced him to wage war against his own Pashtun tribal citizens who support nationalist and religious forces in Afghanistan fighting western occupation. "Pharoah" Musharraf now appears headed for the same fate as the Shah and Sadat. Either the army will overthrow him or, his usefulness at an end, Washington may simply discard him.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration is again studying military strikes against Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. The Pentagon worries they could fall into the hands of al-Qaida. Neoconservatives, who have hijacked U.S. foreign policy, fear Pakistan's nuclear weapons -- that number up to 50 -- could be seized by anti-government forces if the nation were plunged into chaos, and somehow be used against Israel. Therefore, neocons urge air strikes and ground attacks by U.S. special forces to seize or destroy Pakistan's nuclear weapons.
Pakistan's nukes are heavily guarded by special army units and military intelligence, ISI. They are kept in components, with nuclear cores apart from the rest of the bombs. Benazir Bhutto told me that when she was prime minister, she asked to inspect Pakistan's main reactor at Kahuta and its nuclear arsenal -- but was refused entry by the army.
It is highly unlikely Pakistan's nukes could fall into the hands of mobs or al-Qaida -- unless the army splinters in a power struggle. But the weapon's precise locations are not fully known to CIA or DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency). Chances are they are also being moved to thwart detection. Any U.S. attack would be bloody, dangerous, and might easily go terribly wrong.
INDIA AND ISRAEL
Adding danger, a U.S. attack on Pakistan's nuclear arsenal could quickly be joined by Pakistan's old foe, nuclear-armed India, and/or even Israel.
Both reportedly drew up plans for a "decapitating" strike against Pakistan's nuclear arsenal in 1991 and again 1999.
President George Bush recently claimed Iran was intent on starting World War III. Or "World War IV," as the crazies who now advise presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani call it.
We are looking at an apocalyptic war all right, but not started by Iran. An American attack on Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, or an all-out attack on Iran, could amply fill the bill.
Three things restrain Bush and mentor Dick Cheney from unleashing war against Iran: Need to use three secret U.S. bases in Pakistan to attack eastern Iran; Pentagon opposition; and growing warnings from Russia's Vladimir Putin. Political chaos in Pakistan has thrown a spanner into neocon plans for World War IV.
Eric Margolis writes a regular column for The Toronto Sun.
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