Iran's nuclear program, and its president's vitriol, are certainly cause for concern, but they may have served to draw our attention away from a much more immediate danger - in Pakistan. In fact, there are four main reasons why the events unfolding in Pakistan should trouble us greatly, notwithstanding the greater distance separating the two countries, and the fact that the hatred for Israel emanating from there receives much less attention in the Israeli media. The most basic and obvious problem is that since May 1998, when it carried out a series of underground tests, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan has been a confirmed member of the nuclear club. Its means of delivery may still be limited, but it has a program to develop intermediate-range missiles of North Korean design. The most conservative estimates suggest that Pakistan has managed to produce 600-900 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (enough for at least 30-60 weapons). If that is not worrying enough, Pakistan also has a plutonium-based nuclear weapons program, perhaps intended for backup. But the most disconcerting aspect of all of this is neither the number of assembled weapons, nor the technological know-how: It is the sheer amount of fissile material available at different sites, including nuclear plants, which is also easier to steal, smuggle and use in radiological-type bombs. Pakistan's current political instability may be part and parcel of the ongoing tug-of-war between the military and civilians for the country's soul, but it could also be the preamble to a civil war. What General Pervez Musharraf did in Pakistan last weekend has been done there by military strongmen before. Moreover, neither under civilian nor military rule has Pakistan managed to achieve long periods of domestic stability and economic growth. But there are three elements that, unlike previous periods of turmoil, seem to be reaching a peak today, and may be creating conditions that take the current unrest to a more extreme dimension.
First, with the official incorporation of Islam into the mechanisms of the state, under General Zia-ul-Haq in 1977, the growing power of the religion assumed an increasingly vocal political role in the country. Second, the influx of funds and ideology - in great part from Saudi Arabia - has led to a significant radicalization and growing independence of Islamic movements in Pakistan. Third, the Taliban, and their affiliates in the porous, ethnically segmented border areas, seem to have come home to roost. When Musharraf declared a state of emergency on television, he quoted from an 1864 letter by Abraham Lincoln, in which the latter justified his unconstitutional actions in the United States on the grounds that he was trying to save the union. Perhaps Musharraf was drawing a parallel to conditions in Pakistan, which he was implying were similar to a civil war. That comparison is not so far-fetched: Since the July siege of the Red Mosque in the capital, at least 800 people have died in Pakistan either in terrorist attacks or in fighting between security forces and Taliban. In its September/October Terrorism Index, the magazine Foreign Policy surveyed 100 U.S.-based experts who selected Pakistan as the country or region "most likely to become the next Al-Qaida stronghold." But even if we accept the argument posed by some, that the army, not radical Islamists, is to blame in Pakistan and that elections and democratization are the solution to Musharraf's failed rule, there is still the problem of the Islamic Bomb. This was so dubbed by then prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1974, in response to India's nuclear tests. As in Iran, Pakistan's nuclear program enjoys broad public support at home. In this regard, the terminology has both symbolic and practical value. Indeed, both the army and civilian leaders used the Islamic card as a tool for nation-building and for unifying a multiethnic, polyglot and culturally diverse mixture of populations. As such, an Islamic Bomb means, alternately, a bomb to defend Pakistan from India, and also a Sunni bomb potentially available to the ummah. Which brings us to the most worrisome threat of all: proliferation. What do we know? We know that successive Pakistani leaders, both civilian and military, lied about their intentions to develop nuclear weapons. We also know that the Pakistanis have actively proliferated nuclear technology and materials and that the notorious "father of the bomb," Dr. A.Q. Khan, was not only the mastermind of a lucrative ring of proliferators, but also its fall guy. To this we should mention the strategic ties established beginning in the early 1980s between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, which include missile and other technology sharing. If Pakistan is in turmoil, starved for funds, with power devolving into the hands of various groups, including rogue elements in its powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) with known ties to Islamic extremists, nuclear proliferation is likely. This could come in the form of off-the-shelf weapons being sold to countries like Saudi Arabia, forced to turn nuclear by an Iranian bomb, or with terrorists interested in acquiring small quantities of fissile material for "dirty bombs" - whose potential targets are many. Indeed, according to the Foreign Policy survey, three-quarters of the experts pointed to Pakistan as the country "most likely to transfer nuclear technology to terrorists in the next three to five years." In spite of calls for elections, these may prove to be too little too late to stem chaos in Pakistan - which could include the loss of parts of the country to radical armed groups. For Israel and the West, this means preparing to face two nuclear crises in 2008.