How Can We Trust Them?

Pakistan is both arsonist and fireman in the war on terrorism

  • Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images for TIME

    Pakistanis gather for prayer at the Data Darbar Sufi shrine in Lahore

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    Long before Mohamed Atta started learning to pilot airplanes in a Florida flight school, Pakistan was fostering its own breed of jihadis ready to wage war on India. The school curriculum was based on contempt for infidels and glorification of martyrdom, the better to prepare a generation of guerrillas far more effective than any conventional army. It would be a mistake to think bin Laden's death would be a deterrent to anyone considering the path of militant jihad. If anything, it may inspire more young men, devoid of alternatives, to seek glory in taking an American bullet.

    It is true that school textbooks have lately been modified (though they still portray India as an enemy). But the jihadist rhetoric resonates at weekly prayers in mosques where radical mullahs spew hate and intolerance, unchecked by government authority. When a provincial governor was killed in January by a bodyguard who saw him as a blasphemer for suggesting that the country's harsh blasphemy laws be changed, thousands went into the streets to praise the murderer. Few government officials went on record to condemn the assassin. The official silence smothered a small but growing civil-society movement promoting tolerance and education. Two months later, the Minority Affairs Minister, a Christian, was shot dead for the same reason. His assailants remain at large.

    Nor do the extremists limit their violence to Pakistan. The roster of recent international terrorist attacks, from London in 2005 to Mumbai in 2008 to the 2009 attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul and the foiled 2010 attack on New York City's Times Square, have one element in common: Pakistan. The attackers either were Pakistani, were trained in Pakistan or were assisted by Pakistani handlers. It's a record that makes a mockery of Pakistani government assertions that it is doing everything it can to stop terrorism.

    Pakistani terrorist groups have not yet produced a leader of bin Laden's stature, but then, in a sense, they don't need to. The skills they impart, from bombmaking to the wherewithal for multipronged attacks, are far more valuable in a world where al-Qaeda franchises are focused less on expensive spectaculars like 9/11 and more on smaller operations that sow fear and chaos. The perfect template is the 2008 attack on the Indian financial capital of Mumbai, in which four teams of Pakistani terrorists armed with guns and grenades took the city hostage for 36 hours, killing 174.

    That operation is thought to have been carried out by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a terrorist group with long and deep ties to Pakistani officialdom. At a trial in Chicago later this month, David Headley, a Pakistani American accused of scoping out Mumbai targets for LeT, is expected to implicate Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, confirming long-held suspicions by American and Indian authorities, as well as many Pakistanis, that the intelligence agency is dabbling in terrorism as much as spycraft. Another Mumbai-style attack on Indian soil carries a very real possibility of war between India and Pakistan, both of which have nuclear arms.

    Pakistani officials never tire of pointing out that they have rolled up more al-Qaeda members than any other nation, a claim that, while true, says much about the concentration of terrorists in the country. Such captures have become diplomatic theater, produced with a flourish when Islamabad's relationship with Washington is under particular strain. "Pakistan can be described as both the fireman and the arsonist," says Christine Fair, an expert at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Policy. "It constantly finds ways of renewing its strategic relevance."

    That is the crux of the matter. Pakistan has convinced the world that its geographical location and heft are such that its interests need attending to, no matter how often it lets others — and itself — down. Obama cannot be the first President to have wished that fate would rid him of the duty of working with, and worrying about, so inconstant a partner. But as his predecessors have all discovered, fate won't.

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