Land of the Islamic Bomb

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It was in western Pakistan, not far from the Afghan border, where Mary Anne Weaver watched a man accused of murder prove his innocence by walking seven paces barefoot across hot coals. He made it without scorching his feet: case closed. The White House can take some comfort from the fact that unlikely outcomes are still possible in Pakistan. But as Weaver's engrossing and unnerving book makes plain, if the U.S. goes to war against Iraq, miracles may be needed to keep Pakistan, 1,500 miles to the east, from blowing into deadly pieces.

"The accumulation of disorder in Pakistan is such that it could well be the next Yugoslavia," Weaver warns in Pakistan: In the Shadow of Jihad and Afghanistan (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 284 pages). Worse, actually — it's Yugoslavia with an atomic arsenal that could fall into the hands of terrorists should the country disintegrate. It also has a dozen or so private Islamic militias, all eager to install a religious regime, and a powerful intelligence service--"a kingdom within the state," she calls it — shot through with bin Laden sympathizers.

And even if the unpopular government of General Pervez Musharraf survives the inevitable anger in the streets that a U.S. war with Iraq would unleash, Pakistan's bitter dispute with India over Kashmir will remain, posing a constant threat of war between two nations with nuclear arms. Weaver, a foreign correspondent for the New Yorker, is a lucid and compelling guide through the nasty predicament that is Pakistan. Just don't expect her to be a comforting one.