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Over the last eighteen months I've been less worried about Iraq than Afghanistan... and worried about Afghanistan because of Pakistan.
Friends who travel there say Pakistan is a lovely place, with many gracious people. That said, it is also an unstable nuclear power, governed by a series of authoritarian governments, engaged in a hot border dispute with the pluralistic democracy (India) next door. The father of its nuclear program, A.Q. Khan, long ran a "bazaar" distributing technical knowledge to countries including North Korea and Iran. Its intelligence service has been riddled with Islamists who have a too-close relationship to a variety of violent extremist movements, including the al Qaeda-hosting Taliban. Its politicians, even its reform politicians, spring from a feudal system that still underpins their power base. The knee-jerk reaction of its intellectual class is post-colonial-grievance argument. (Instance: the brilliant young novelist Kamila Shamsie wrote in the Guardian shortly after 9/11 that America shared a portion of the blame for that tragedy since the US had disengaged from Afghanistan following the anti-Soviet jihad there; in fact Pakistan had prevented the US from any direct engagement with Afghanistan for the previous two decades, while the US had nevertheless been the largest supplier of aid to the country through the 1990s.)

Westerners sometimes misread the so-called "strongman" President Pervez Musharraf, who stepped down this, and they may have misread his reform instincts. Admittedly his habit of arresting judges didn't help, but for a contrary view of his thinking read a précis of his graduate thesis at King's College of Defense Studies... it's describes exactly the path reformers recommend now, decades after he wrote it. Of course, when Musharraf signed an armistice with leaders in Pakistan's independent tribal areas in the north and west of the country, westerners justifiably called into question how stalwart an ally he was in pursuit of the violent extremists taking refuge there. For his part, Senator Barack Obama earlier this year thundered dramatically and alarmingly that if Pakistan did not show itself more useful in confronting violent extremists in its country the US might need to bomb and invade it. (Presumably he meant the restive tribal areas in that country rather than Islamabad, but perhaps the Senator should reflect on his counsel about the utility of soft power.)

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