Three weeks after President Pervez Musharaff declared emergency rule, Pakistan's political unrest continues to make headlines around the world. Although President Bush says the Pakistani general has done more for democracy in his country than any other modern leader, there is international concern the nuclear state's battle against terrorists might be weakening. VOA's Ravi Khanna takes a look at the historical and strategic significance of Pakistan for the South Asian region and the United States.
Pakistan has been strategically important from the day in 1947 when the British carved it out of India. The new republic shared borders with India, China, Afghanistan and Iran, and was also close to the then Soviet Union. Some Indian analysts allege that the British purposely created Pakistan, which, due to tensions with India, could be used by the West as a listening post to spy on its giant neighbors.
But senior analyst Leon Hadar of the Cato Institute, a think tank in Washington, DC, does not agree. "I don't think there was a lot of thinking about it. I think it was just driven by the geo-political issues that were at that time dominating the British foreign policy. But there is no doubt that as a result, Pakistan emerged as a very important strategic player."
Hadar says Pakistan remained critically important during the Cold War because it was a close ally of the U.S. at a time when India was seen to be in the Soviet camp. And Pakistan's strategic significance increased when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. He says President Reagan turned it into a frontline state in an effort to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan.
Walter Andersen teaches South Asian affairs at the Washington, D.C. campus of Johns Hopkins University. He says, with the al-Qaida network and Osama bin Laden reassembling in the mountains of northwestern Pakistan, the country is quite dangerous to the U.S.
"And then geographically Pakistan is right there at the entry to the Persian Gulf and all the oil resources. And then it has nuclear weapons, all of which makes it significant, particularly significant if the Islamic fundamentalists gain more power," says Andersen.
Policy analyst Farhana Ali at the Rand Corporation agrees. She says the alliance between Washington and Islamabad has to be viewed through the prism of the ongoing battle against terrorists.
"Now that the United States sees that al-Qaida threatens not only the U.S., but also [threatens] the world community, it is in the vital interest of America to ally itself with the country to fight against the extremists within its own borders," she says.
Some members of the U.S. Congress suggest America should cut off the billions of dollars in assistance it sends Pakistan's military to fight extremists. Andersen at Johns Hopkins says it would be foolish for the U.S. to cut links. "Then you cut off any ability to influence in the country or cutting off all links to the military because there was a generation of the Pakistani military that had no links to the United States, and that can count. Personal connections do play a role," he says.
President Bush continues to urge General Musharraf to ensure elections are held and bring democracy to Pakistan. Hadar at Cato says Washington should focus on helping Pakistan fight terrorists. "If my choice is between a "Pakistani Jefferson" who is unable to achieve that goal and a repressive military dictator who can do that, I will choose the military dictator."
An expert says India is also concerned for Pakistan's welfare because of chaotic political situations in neighboring Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
One of India's eminent syndicated columnists with easy access to the powerful of New Delhi, Inder Malhotra, says India could have a sea of chaos around it. "So we cannot underestimate either the strategic significance of Pakistan for the stability of the entire [South Asian] region, or the consequences of either complete anarchy or advancement of Islamic extremism in that country."
Malhotra says if pro-Taliban Jihadi terrorists take power in Pakistan, it will be like a Taliban regime with nuclear weapons, and the United States and India will be among their bigger targets.