Triggering Unintended Consequences

The law of unintended consequences is at work again, this time in the crisis between India and Pakistan. The law says that when you solve one problem, you usually create another. That is exactly what has happened to the United States—twice now—in Central Asia.

It happened first during the Cold War, when the problem was Soviet expansionism. After the Soviets took over Afghanistan in 1979, the United States teamed up with the Pakistanis to drive them out by arming and financing radical Islamic resistance fighters. It worked. In 1989, the Soviets were driven out of Afghanistan. The United States promptly lost interest in Central Asia. And Afghanistan fell into chaos.

The unintended consequence of the original U.S. action? In 1996, the Taliban took over Afghanistan and provided a base for Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorists. Meanwhile, Pakistan was left with tens of thousands of Islamic militants trained to fight in Afghanistan. These followers of the jihadi, or Muslim holy war organizations, have become a potent force in Pakistan.

The U.S. response to the terrorism of September 11 also triggered the law of unintended consequences. The United States again teamed up with Pakistan, this time to overthrow the Taliban. It worked. The unintended consequence was that Al Qaeda terrorists took refuge in Pakistan, where they have joined forces with local Islamic militants. Al Qaeda is believed to have had a hand in the bombings of Christian churches in Pakistan, the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl, and the Karachi car bombing that killed 12 French technical advisers.

Last January, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf pledged that his country would no longer be a base for foreign terrorists. He repeated that pledge on May 30: "Pakistan is a victim of terrorism. We condemn terrorism in all its forms and manifestations." But there is a certain irony in Musharraf's position. He came to power in 1999 partly because of his alliance with Muslim militants.

Pakistan's Muslim militants have taken up the cause of liberating Muslim-dominated Kashmir from Indian control. Pakistan supports that cause, though Musharraf is not an Islamic radical. In fact, he has vowed to turn his country away from Islamic fundamentalism. He is a militant of a different sort—a militant nationalist and hawk. As a general, Musharraf led Pakistani forces into Kashmir in 1999. That incursion nearly led to war with India.

Musharraf took power in a coup against the previous government because of its pledge, under pressure from the United States, to rein in militant forces. "He has been playing a double game," author Salman Rushdie wrote recently, "arresting hundreds of members of the groups he once fostered but quietly freeing most of them soon afterward."

On the issue of Kashmir, Musharraf has made common cause with the jihadis—they for religious reasons, he for political reasons. An expert on Pakistan's religious militants told The New York Times, "The success of the jihadi strategy in Afghanistan compelled the generals to try it on India, too. The Kashmir jihadis are our cannon fodder because they are willing to die for their cause in a way that no paid soldiers would." The jihadis are even more important to Pakistan now that war with India seems to be looming.

India claims that Al Qaeda terrorists, supported by Pakistani militants, had a hand in the attack on Kashmir's regional assembly last October, the bombing of India's Parliament in New Delhi in December, and last month's attack on an Indian army camp in Kashmir. "There are Al Qaeda—call them fighters, call them terrorists. They are there in Pakistan," India's defense minister says.

Kashmir is the only Indian state with a Muslim majority. And while the government of India is officially secular and pluralistic, the party currently in power is a Hindu nationalist party suspected of encouraging anti-Muslim violence. The Pakistani position is that the resistance in Kashmir comes from local Muslims who resent living under Indian control.

President Bush does not accept that argument and has warned, "We're part of an international coalition applying pressure to both parties, particularly to President Musharraf. He must stop the incursions across the Line of Control."

Many people suspect that Al Qaeda is fomenting conflict between India and Pakistan to distract Pakistan from pursuing its members. That strategy may be working. Before leaving for Asia, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted, "The number of Pakistani battalions that have been located along that Afghan border has not changed, and we hope it will not change." But Musharraf warned, "Our first priority is our own security.... That is where shifting forces from west to east comes in."

The United States wants to keep Pakistan focused on the anti-terrorism campaign, which includes keeping terrorists out of Kashmir, because all of this could lead to an even worse unintended consequence—nuclear war between India and Pakistan.

If Pakistan were to lose another war with India and Musharraf were overthrown, Islamic radicals could take over. And that could lead to the most disastrous unintended consequence of all—terrorists gaining access to Pakistan's nuclear weapons.