What’s the Matter with Pakistan?

The 9/11 Commission Report identified three countries as the top concerns in the war on terror: Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. In theory, nuclear-armed Pakistan has been a US ally for decades. What’s the matter with Pakistan? “It is hard to overstate the importance of Pakistan in the struggle against Islamic terrorism.” – Report of the 9/11 Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. When the 9/11 Commission consulted counter-terrorism experts on where they most feared terrorists would today establish bases, “western Pakistan” topped the list. The Commission also raised the alarm about Pakistan’s madrassahs, Islamic schools where many of Al Qaeda’s footsoldiers were indoctrinated. And decried the fact that a leading Pakistani nuclear scientist had run a nuclear smuggling ring, selling atomic secrets to Iran and North Korea, among others. As to why Pakistan – the recipient of close to $50 billion in foreign aid, and for decades a US ally – should be such a threat, the Commission had this to say: “poverty, widespread corruption, and an often ineffective government.” But surely there is more to it than that. Those labels fit many countries, few of which are distributing nuclear secrets or educating terrorists. To understand what makes Pakistan the hardest of the hard cases, recall an obscure tragedy that took place in the province of Punjab many decades ago. There, well-meaning politicians, noting the huge numbers of impoverished peasants, decided it would be a good idea to redistribute some of the unused landholdings of the province’s wealthiest landlords to peasant families. The landlords did not think much of the idea. The politicians insisted. The landlords...

Saudi Arabia’s Costly Stability

In the past two years Saudi Arabia has suffered a series of brutal terrorist attacks, most recently the beheading of an American. Growing alarm about the country’s stability is driving up oil prices. Is Saudi Arabia coming undone? “Saudi Arabia’s thirst for bootleg liquor has been linked to a spate of bombings that has left one expatriate Briton dead and four others injured in the past month…” – from the Australian, December 2000. In the year 2000 such stories began to slip from behind the Saudi veil. An unlikely mix of foreign nationals – Canadians, Belgians, Britons – not know for gangsterism were turning Riyadh into a reenactment of Prohibition-era Chicago. Behind the walls of the immense compounds favored by the Saudi elite was there a secret world of speakeasies, gangster molls and tommy guns? In fact, no. There was a secret, to be sure. But the secret was not moonshine stills, it was al-Qaeda, which by then had begun killing foreigners working in the kingdom. The alcohol smuggling stories were, it seems, an elaborate hoax by the Saudi authorities to cover up their growing problems with Islamic terrorism. It is an odd story, and also an important one. In Saudi Arabia, political instability is not necessarily what it seems. To understand why the Saudis would invent tales of gang warfare and distribute them to the world’s press – including some “confessions” by British and Canadian gangsters allegedly produced under torture – one needs to know the rules of Saudi politics. This is a land of long and proud tradition, though a country of recent vintage. The story of...