Musharraf’s deputy a reluctant linchpin —

As Musharraf and secular moderates square off in Pakistan, President Musharraf’s emergency rule threatens to bring on the White House’s worst nightmare – a nuclear-armed, Islamist-controlled government on the border of both India and Afghanistan, threatening to spark a multi-way arms race in South East Asia.

The scenario for that runs something like this: under White House and internal military pressure, Musharraf takes off his uniform and steps down as head of the Army in order to assume a purely civilian leadership role. Critics of President Musharraf, including Bhutto, encourage their supporters to boycott the next round of elections.

Meanwhile, secular protesters renew their efforts against the Musharraf government. College students, human rights activists, lawyers, judges and other intellectuals and moderates seeking democratic, secular government stage protests, which will become increasingly radical and perhaps even violent, as in Iran in the 1970s.

As Musharraf’s government loses legitimacy internationally and at home, the Islamists they have been fighting will smell blood and step up their efforts against an already battered Pakistani military, whose morale is already dangerously low.

As tensions between secular moderates, Musharraf’s government and Islamists rise, a number of possibilities could unfold.

Musharraf’s government may have to step up its crackdowns, further alienating groups that have acted as a stabilizing force in Pakistan, exposing the Musharraf government further to the Islamist uprising.

Alternately, moderates and left-wing radicals could weaken Musharraf’s government to the point where it is unable to fight off the forces of Islamist and radical revolution, just as occurred in the overthrow of the Iranian Shah thirty years ago.

Another option is a full-blown moderate and left-radical bloodless or not-so-bloodless revolution, ousting Musharraf and his government, and from the fray some secular leader, perhaps even Bhutto, might arise.

The weakened moderate government would then be easy pickings for Islamists, with an alienated and weakened military, battered supporters, a new outrage for Islamists to rally around (particularly if Bhutto, a woman, were to come to power), and a new military leader, Kayani (Musharraf’s successor as military Chief of Staff), who has expressed his reluctance to bring the military back onto the political stage.

It’s not clear yet that any of these scenarios have a real chance of coming to pass, but if they do, all hell would quickly break lose. Even barring a full Islamist nuclear attack on India (maybe the leaders have a greater sense of self-preservation than the people they convince to blow themselves up to further their agenda), Islamist Pakistan could then act with almost complete impunity to sponsor, harbor and fund terrorists (or even, heaven forbid, give nuclear weapons to terrorists).

That would, of course, mark and enormous setback in the U.S. efforts to combat Islamists.

India and Pakistan would, of course, almost immediately find themselves in an arms race, which would give China one more reason to enlarge their arsenal.

With Japan, China’s worst and most frightening enemy in recent history, already considering a nuclear weapons program, an arms race between Pakistan, India and China might well give the Japanese government the final nudge it needs to go nuclear.

Like a chain reaction building energy, any sort of arms race scenario quickly gives incentive for North and South Korea, not to mention Taiwan and Russia and perhaps Indonesia and Australia, to restart their nuclear weapons programs.

Before we know it, six or more countries could have joined or rejoined the nuclear club, drastically increasing the chances of nuclear proliferation, or perhaps even a real nuclear war in the already overly-tense balancing act of South East Asia.

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