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FIXING SOME PRIORITIES

When the United Nations security council does the worst-case analysis in the event of an American attack on Iraq, what do its members tell themselves about Pakistan, the world’s second-biggest Muslim country, the one with the nuclear weapons' Do they ever worry that the backlash elsewhere against an American invasion of Iraq might include the overthrow of Pakistan’s pro-Western ruler, Pervez Musharraf, by Islamist officers in his own armed forces'

Musharraf first came to the world’s notice by infiltrating Pakistani troops into the Indian-controlled Kargil mountains of Kashmir in the winter of 1998-99, causing a battle that ended with over a thousand soldiers dead and a humiliating withdrawal by Pakistan. Musharraf blamed the civilian prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, for backing down (from an incursion that he had never authorized), and six months later he overthrew him. But then came the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Suddenly the highest priority of the United States of America was to get at Afghanistan and destroy the headquarters of al Qaida terrorists who had murdered over 3,000 Americans — which put Musharraf on the spot. Not only was Pakistan’s territory needed for a US military operation in landlocked Afghanistan, but the taliban were largely the creation of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence agency. Musharraf hesitated only hours before throwing in his lot with the US president, George W. Bush.

Musharraf’s risks

Musharraf’s decision involved big risks, of course. It meant abandoning the commanding position that Pakistan had built up in Afghanistan through the ISI’s patronage of the taliban, and upsetting millions of militant Islamists in Pakistan. More important, there was the risk of a military coup within an army that has a significant number of Islamist officers in the senior ranks. But Musharraf placed his bet, and so far he has done just fine.

So far, however, does not include a US invasion of Iraq and its possible ramifications, including Israeli participation in the war, millions of Arab civilian casualties in Iraq, and the overthrow of pro-Western governments elsewhere in the Arab world. Can Musharraf survive the upheavals that are probably just around the corner' It matters, because Pakistan has dozens of nuclear weapons while no Arab state has any.

It matters much less to the rest of the world if the Egyptian or Saudi Arabian regimes were to be overthrown by Islamist revolutions in reaction to Bush’s conquest of Iraq. Arabians would have to go on selling their oil at world market prices under any conceivable post-Saudi regime, because they live off the proceeds, just as the Egyptians would have to keep the Suez Canal open because they need the revenue.

Trouble brewing

Israel might have a harder time if these two Arab states fell into the hands of its Islamist enemies, but its military superiority in the region is so overwhelming that it could easily deal with them.

The Arabs cannot challenge Israel successfully, and the other four-fifths of the world’s Muslims mostly feel only a distant sympathy for fellow Muslims in a desperate situation. Most non-Arab Muslims have less grievance against the world than the Arabs, because their recent history has not been such a disastrous record of defeat and failure on every front. They have never fought for the Arabs in the past, and they will not do so now — with the single, potentially vital, exception of Pakistan.

Pakistanis have a profound sense of grievance against both India and the West for their defeats and failures over the past 50 years, and the only thing that holds their disparate ethnic groups together is their shared commitment to Islam. An Islamist coup in Pakistan in the event of a US attack on Iraq would probably have enough popular support to survive — and despite its obsession with India, Pakistan under Islamist rule might share its nuclear weapons with like-minded Islamist states in the Arab world.

Of course, there aren’t any Islamist states in the Arab world right now. But next month’s war may fix that, too.

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